Wednesday, January 20, 2016

In A Strange Twist, EPA Region 2's Administrator Enck May Let "Policies" Rather Than Science And Engineering Contaminate Gowanus Canal Superfund Clean-Up

At the January 19, 2016 Gowanus Canal Superfund Community Advisory Group
Doug Sarno, CAG Facilitator
Region 2 Superfund Director Walter Mugdan
Ask many folks here in Gowanus and Carroll Gardens about our toxic Gowanus Canal, and they will shrug their shoulders and say: "Fuhgeddaboudit! That canal will never be cleaned. At least not in our lifetime."
The cynicism seems well founded. After all, the man-made canal became polluted almost immediately after it was completed in 1869.  There never seemed to be either the political will nor the money by the City of New York nor by the State of New York to address this environmental disaster in any meaningful way.
Thankfully, in 2008, Alexander (Pete) Grannis, then-Commissioner of the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, reached out to the United States Environmental Protection Agency
to "initiate an investigation and hazardous ranking score" for the canal.
The chances for a comprehensive clean-up improved significantly when the Environmental Protection Agency added this fetid waterway on the Agency’s Superfund National Priorities List in 2010. Declaring that the Gowanus canal was "one of the nation's most extensively contaminated water bodies" as a result of years of discharges, storm water runoff, sewer outflows and industrial pollutants,  EPA gave the community real hope.

From the beginning, EPA Region 2, which oversees this particular Superfund, was transparent with the public.  Regional Administrator Judith Enck and Region 2 Superfund Director Walter Mugdan met often with the community and assured the public that the Federal Government had the power to force the polluters to perform remediation as well as to foot the financial bill.  The message was clear: the Agency would not walk away from the clean-up until the job was done. Even then, the EPA would continue to monitor the canal in  perpetuity.

As the process got under way, the Gowanus Canal Project Manager Christos Tsiamis, and  Legal Council  Brian Carr  continued to update  members of the community almost monthly through the Gowanus Canal Superfund Community Advisory Group.
Under Tsiamis' capable and dedicated supervision, the project was moving forward even ahead of the time-table set by the Agency. Most importantly, science, nothing but science, seemed to guide Region 2's decision making.

But then something changed just in the past few months.  Instead of science, politics seemed to contaminate the process. The responsibility for this latest twist seems to lead right to Administrator Enck.

It all has to with the decision regarding the siting of an 8-million gallon retention tank the EPA has ordered New York City to build as part the remedial design for the canal . The tank is a combined sewer overflow (CSO) control measure for the upper reach of the canal meant to "significantly reduce overall contaminated solid discharges to the Canal."

EPA Region 2  has suggested placing the 8-million gallon tank underneath the Double D pool at Thomas Greene Park. The Agency reasoned that the site is already owned by the City, which would save the cost of acquiring land.
In addition, the park sits on top of the former Brooklyn Union Gas Fulton Municipal Manufactured Gas Plant (MGP) which was in operation at this location from 1879 to the early 1930s. Since coal tar is currently oozing under the pool area and flows towards the Gowanus Canal, National Grid, the party responsible for the environmental clean-up, has been asked by EPA to dig up the pool so that the source contamination can be removed. By working in tandem with National Grid, DEP would save money and time.

The NYC DEP, on the other hand, would prefer to site the 8-million gallon tank on privately-owned land along the canal, adjacent to the park. The sites in question are 234 Butler Street and 242 Nevins Street. In addition, the City wants to acquire 270 Nevins Street, which is currently occupied by Eastern Effects Studios, as a staging area. The City is willing to make use of Eminent Domain to acquire the three properties if the private owners are unwilling to sell. The necessary legal proceedings involved in making this happen will take time and millions of dollars.

The City reasons that it wants the tanks in closer proximity to the rest of its Gowanus infrastructure at the head of the canal. It also wants to build a head-house for the mechanical elements related to the tank. The above ground head house envisioned by the City would take up 1/4 of Thomas Greene Park if built there, DEP argues. The neighborhood is already underserved as far as green spaces according to the City.  Using the privately owned parcels would allow them to maintain the park as is and add additional parkland on those purchased parcels.

This issue was discussed at length by Region 2 Superfund Director Walter Mugdan at the Gowanus Canal Community Advisory Group meeting last night.
Though his agency had thought that it would have a resolution on this matter by now,  Mugdan informed the community that the decision is most likely going to be announced in February or March.

Ir remains clear that EPA still sees the Park as the best location for the tank because the location will save time and save the City significant costs.
"I still believe that is pretty accurate," Mugdan told the community last night. "Since the pool needs to be dismantled anyhow, it seems like a pretty logical location to put the CS0 tank." But he added: "We have had a lot of interaction with the City on quite high levels."  According to Mugdan, the City has brought to the EPA other considerations and has argued "eloquently and forcefully" for their own plan.

The City's proposal, which includes condemnation proceedings and potentially lengthy lawsuits, obviously has the potential of delaying the environmental clean up of the Gowanus Canal significantly and it will add a lot of uncertainty.
Mugdan admitted that, "the chunk of time [because of these legal proceedings] would be longer in almost all certainty than if the tank went to the park location."
He stated that one of EPA Region 2's main concern is "scheduling and complexities",  but that his Agency feels that if, through conversations with the City, satisfactory conclusions can be reached, "the EPA can accept the City's request." 
Mugdan stated that "Our goals are the following: assuming that we can come to an agreement with the City as to the location of the tank, our expectation is that we will have an Adminsitrative Consent order for the City to sign."  However, according to Mugdan, a certain amount of uncertainty remains. "We are still not where we would like to be on January 19th."

Which brings me to the important question:  Why would the EPA Region 2 under the leadership of Judith Enck, which has prided itself on keeping its own timeline, open itself up to uncertainty and time delays?  And why does it seem to cater to the City, which is a PRP?  After all, there is a real possibility that the City is trying to use eminent domain to delay the clean-up process?  Historically, one City administration after the other has been successfully kicking the problem down the road.  That is why we needed the EPA to interfere in the first place.

As one of the Gowanus Canal Community Advisory Group members mentioned last night, it seems like politics, not science has been  driving this particular debate.  Mugdan's answer:"I would call it policy.  If you want to call it politics, you can."

Mugdan is a masterful speaker.  He certainly did a good job preparing the community for a decision that has most probably already been reached by his boss, Judith Enck.  Enck, a political appointee who will have to leave her present post at the end of 2016, is not a scientist nor an engineer.  If she intends to cave to political pressure in regards to the canal, she will not be there to deal with the consequences.  
It is a pity that her legacy may include undermining the team in charge of the Superfund clean-up.

It is interesting to note that Christos Tsiamis, the EPA engineer and project manager in charge of the site, was not in attendance last night. Neither did he attend the last CAG meeting.


Anonymous said...

Wow. The EPA couldn't find ONE non-white person to come to their meeting?

Anonymous said...

I think one of the more interesting tidbits to come out of the meeting was Lander indicating that the comptroller is not really independent and is little more than a human rubber stamp for the whims of the mayor.

Katia said...

Yes, I had the same reaction. Mugdan indicated that EPA would need DEP to get final approval by Comptroller Stringer's office to move forward with eminent domain procedure. The question is, does Stringer's office have veto power or does it just make sure that the proper purchase procedure is followed. Lander indicated that it is the latter.

Anonymous said...

Mugdan tried somewhat to make the point last night that "policies" are not the same as "politics." So, I tried that line of thinking out on my co-workers this morning at the office. The result? Not ONE person believed that distinction! And Mugdan tried to present the EPA as STILL "weighing" both options for the tank siting. However it was pretty obvious that "talks" have been had and "decisions" have taken place that the CAG is not privy to, and that go directly against the EPA's original recommendations. Judith Enck is playing politics not "policy" and shame on her! Mr. Mugdan was evidently sent to semi-bad deliver the news with his masterful speaker skills. But where was the the hard working, ever-conscientious, and civic-minded project engineer, Christos Tsiamis? It is Tsiamis who has led the way on the Gowanus Canal clean-up for several years and whose presence and intelligence the community has come to trust. Was he bound and gagged in a back room in Brooklyn someplace? How tragic for this community the recent EPA turn of events is! Will the Gowns Canal ever be properly cleaned up? Really.... truly????

Anonymous said...

Brad Lander's 5th Avenue Committee to Benefit from Gowanus clean-Up delay is not going to be a great headline for Brad's reelection prospects.

Anonymous said...

The lack of transparency from public agencies (DEP, EPA) is extremely troubling and a disservice to the public. We pay them. They are accountable to us, not the mayor who has been opposed to the canal's designation as a superfund site from the beginning. The Region 2 team as always been accessible and willing to address any questions members of the community/general public (i. e. not members of the CAG or the politically connected) may have. Something has changed. It's almost as if some of the team members have been silenced. It seems like Judith Enck will cave to political pressure and base her decision on opinion not data and in so doing will undermine the integrity of her agency. Perhaps it is time for her to move on.

Margaret said...

@3:43 - wow, such a complex, well-written account and the only comment you can muster is that the EPA could not find one non-White person to come - so Insipid, and racist. The community, all the community, is welcome to come to CAG meetings. It is up to the community members to show their interest.

Pascale Miller said...

Thank you Katia. This is very enlightening….and disheartening.

Anonymous said...


Marlene said...

Yes this week, the EPA Regional Administrator for Flint resigned for what appears to be: putting “policy” (of the city of Flint) over EPA’s own internal staff warnings “that the city’s testing methods were flawed”. The purpose of the EPA is to step in and put “health and the environment” over local “policy” driven decisions.

This all comes at the same time the CDC announced that there are record birth defects in the US, with babies being born with open abdominal walls. And while the CDC can not say what the cause is, we know that today we are all exposed to tens of thousands of unregulated chemicals, many that are dumped through our sewer system into the Gowanus.

The City, a PRP in the Gowanus Superfund, should not be allowed to have their policy decisions drive decisions about the cleanup especially when the city's proposals appear to provide a way out of ever doing what they have been charged to accomplish—that is to construction sewer retention tanks in a timely manner to stop the release of toxic chemicals into the open waters of Gowanus, before the finish remedy is put in place.

Linda said...

I am a member of the Gowanus community, and have worked very hard with others in the community to get the Superfund designation for the Gowanus Canal. Why is Judith Enk and the DEP and DEC playing games with us, such as using eminent domain to play tic-tac-toe in placing the retention tank. All we really want is clean water for our Canal! Is the Gowanus a third world country, without resources to give us a cleaned-up Canal? The DEC's and DEP's tact to play policy(games )with us is so distressing. What is the end game here? Why is the city and the state and Judith Enk not trying to fulfill the promise of a better environment and a healthy future for the community? The threat of eminent domain is a weapon of destruction! It is very disturbing to know that the EPA administrator is a traitor to her own agency. All we want is a cleaned-up Canal. If not now, when?

Anonymous said...

The EPA regional director in Flint, Michigan just resigned. The EPA accepted her resignation. That director apparently was not working for the interest of the people. Ms. Enck, please do right by our community. We worked hard, and long, and we worked against the City. The people have spoken - think about all the comments that were sent to the EPA in favor of EPA cleanup. And all the hard work done by your very own team, which has worked so well with our community.

Gowanee said...

Hmmm...The Fifth Avenue Committee seems to have usurped Gowanus. Their "campaign"to "save the pool" was and remains some kind of ruse for an agenda that is not shared with the community. Lack of green space, by the way, is felt everywhere in Brooklyn. Brooklyn is the most underserved as far as green space. But the Fifth Avenue Committee has plans for Public Place site, also - which was designated as land for the public. They want dense residential development there in the name of that other Trojan Horse: "need for affordable housing." The Fifth Ave Committee wants to call all the shots, and has all kinds of political access. Using eminent domain when it is not necessary is a stall tactic, or something else that makes no sense because there is no transparency here.

L. from Gowanus said...

When the Gowanus Canal was designated a Superfund Site in 2010 the Gowanus community was finally anticipating
ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE for their toxic waterway.

The announcement of Superfund for the Gowanus Canal began an energizing process. EPA provided a very engaging CAG -Community Advisory Group - the community/stakeholders were able to work and think and talk with Region 2 staff about all the associated issues related to living within and near a Superfund Site.

Now, this community is being treated like an unwelcome guest in our own backyard -It feels like we were given a piece of candy and now, the candy is being taken away?

The city and state do not want environmental justice for this community? Government agencies, such as DEC and DEP must never compromise the SUPERFUND objectives of protecting human health risks and the environment!

Do we need to remind Judith Enck about the confirmed toxins in the Gowanus Canal:

Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCB's)
Vinyl Chloride

and we have Combined Sewer Overflows, fecal matter, cholera, carcinogens, oil slicks, Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH's) noxious moving underground plumes, coal tars, heavy metals,

It is necessary to have a Federal Standard/management decision made for the Gowanus Cnal. linking science and and human purpose-this is the heart of the management. Failure to take account of the full values weakens the legitimacy of the process and the outcome of this Superfund site!!!

Judith Enck, make a decision based on science and not on politics. This community will hold you accountable!!!

Agnes said...

@L. from Gowanus - AMEN!
and Thank You.

Cag member said...

Why wasn't Christos there? He has been amazing in his dedication to getting the canal cleaned up. That whole EPA team has been amazing - Christos, Natalie, Walter, Brian. They have earned the trust of the community. EPA was a godsend. We had been in limbo, and worse - this has been only agency, entity, that really has our interest when others gave us the run around, and worse.

Susan said...

After the 2016 Blizzard from Friday night and all day Saturday, the Gowanus Canal looks like it'll overflow once all the 30 inch snow melts. Hopefully the overflow will not reach residential buildings and do as much damages or contaminations as Hurricane Sandy. Is this what the city and state waiting for another emergency.

I had once worked for the city government under Mayor Lindsay's administration. Even though there he was blamed for the city's deficit, the heavily entailed charts for Roosevelt Island was physically built for new low & middle class occupancies. I was surprised it took 5 years to build while the Gowanus Cleanup is still in negotiations rather than action taken to CLEAN UP THE CANAL.

Susan said...

If this is what is happening in LA with methane gas leakages, how about here near the Gowanus Canal that had once produced methane gas for 100 years ...

Anonymous said...

I would hope that if Judith Enck basis her decision on politics rather than science and the expertise of her Gowanus team that she will come to the community (and I mean the community, not the CAG or politicians) and explain her decision. She should also extend a personal invitation to the property owners along the canal whose viable businesses will be subject to eminent domain by the city.

There is a large property for sale on the corner of Degraw and Nevins. Has purchasing that site as a potential luxation for the retention tanks been expkored? It seems a lot less costly and time consuming than eminent domain. I suspect that the city is digging in their heels so that they can get rid of industrial businesses and open the door to residential development. We have potential parkland. It's called Public Place but it's been promised to the politically connected for a 1500 unit residential development.

We've seen in Michigan what happens when an EPA director disregards science and bows to political forces.

Anonymous said...

Public Place site is another scandal waiting to be exposed. That time will come, Fifth Avenue Committee.