Monday, March 01, 2021

False Claims And Questionable Oversight: Why NY State DEC Cannot Be Trusted To Supervise National Grid's Clean-Up At Public Place

Public Place, the almost 11 acre swath of land bordered by the canal and Smith Street and 5th Street and Huntington Street in Carroll Gardens has been mentioned frequently in the news of late and for good reasons.
Public Place may be one of the most polluted sites in New York State and there are grave concerns that it may never be fully cleaned up despite current remediation efforts.

Despite these circumstances, Mayor de Blasio and Councilmember Brad Lander envision Gowanus Green, a 29 story development project with 950 affordable housing  units and a school on a section of Public Place that is City owned (Parcels 1 and 2).  More housing is planned on the privately owned parcel 3.

Public Place site in Carroll Gardens

How did Public Place get so polluted? It is the site of the former Citizens Gas Company's Manufacturing Gas Plant,  one of three such MGPs that once operated along the Gowanus Canal.

The Citizens Gas Company began operations in the late 1860's and then passed into the ownership of Brooklyn Union Gas (BUG) in 1895, which demolished the plant in the 1960's, when the MGP ceased operation.  In subsequent years, BUG was merged with Keyspan, which was then acquired by National Grid in 2007.
An arial view of the Citizens Gas Work site in 1926

What is left behind 160 years later is poisoned land. Coal tar, a highly toxic and carcinogenic by-product of the gasification process, has been allowed to migrate freely through the site and into the Gowanus Canal.   On Public Place, the deepest tar observed extended to approximately 153 feet below the ground surface.

According to a Remediation Investigation Report from 2005 by environmental consultant firm GEI,  "groundwater moving through the areas of tar-saturated soil and residual tar will dissolve the BTEX components and light molecular weight PAHs (e.g., naphthalene). The resultant groundwater plume will migrate in the direction of groundwater flow. "
The study also revealed that in some spots, soil vapor contained elevated levels of benzene, toluene, and xylenes. 

Finally, after decades of exposing local residents to this toxicity, the site is currently being remediated by National Grid under the supervision of New York State's Department Of Environmental Conservation through the state's Brownfield program.
However, the remediation can hardly be called a clean-up. It would be more appropriate to call it a containment, since most of the coal tar will forever remain deep in the native soil.ƒ

Just recently, the Carroll Gardens/ Gowanus community learned that DEC had allowed National Grid to significantly alter and degrade the remediation, sparking concerns that future residents would be exposed to the remaining contamination.

At a December 2020, Gowanus Superfund Community Advisory Committee meeting, members addressed this issue and proposed a resolution asking the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to review and comment on DEC's changes to the remediation of Public Place. The resolution passed overwhelmingly.

Christos Tsiamis, EPA's project manager for the Gowanus Canal Superfund, was in attendance at the December meeting.  Tsiamis, who holds a master's degree in chemical engineering from Columbia University, is very familiar with the issues at Public Place, since coal tar from the site is a major source of pollution in the Gowanus Canal. 
The EPA is very protective of their Superfund clean-ups, so that any site, like Public Place, which has the potential of recontaminating the canal, is rigorously scrutinized.

Christos Tsiamis, the EPA Senior Project Manager for the Gowanus Canal Superfund
(on right)

Since Tsiamis has been studying the contamination of the canal and the uplands since 2009,  he is in a unique position to compare the original mandated clean-up plan to the new downgraded one. 

He expressed concerns that the current DEC supervised remediation actions will not be sufficient. In particular, he mentioned three key aspects that were included in a 2007 design report, but subsequently eliminated when the plan was finalized in 2017-2018.

- the installation of a High Density, heavy plastic liner 2 feet below grade throughout the site as storm water management to prevent rain water absorption, which could dislodge the deeper, remaining pockets of coal tar.  

- two water treatment systems to clean the rainwater from the site so it can can be discharged back directly into the Gowanus Canal

-two 'wings' or wall extensions along 5th Street and Huntington Street to prevent coal tar from oozing out of the site onto nearby sites.

Though members of the Gowanus Superfund CAG appreciated and thanked Tsiamis for his honesty and for sharing his expertise, NYS DEC demanded a retraction from EPA.
Mere days after the CAG meeting, DEC director Michael J. Ryan called Tsiamis' comments "flippant, unsubstantiated statements" and "not only inappropriate but dangerous" in a letter sent to EPA

Ryan claimed that Tsiamis:
• Incorrectly stated that the 2007 remedy required an impermeable cover two feet below grade to prevent infiltration;
• Incorrectly stated that the 2007 remedy required two water treatment systems to treat rainwater;
• Incorrectly stated that the 2007 remedy required “wing walls” along 5th Street and Huntington Street to prevent coal tar migration.

Luckily, one does not have to look far to prove Tsiamis right and the DEC wrong.
A deep dive into National Grid's online documents repository and into PMFA's own reporting revealed these facts:

-In August 2011,  a National Grid team presented their remedial design for the MGP site to Community Board 6. The team stated:
“The proposed remediation calls for the removal of the top 8 feet of soil throughout the site, which will be backfilled with clean soil to street level.
"As part of storm water management and to prevent ground water from leaking into the canal, a High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) liner will be installed 2 feet below grade throughout.”
Portions of the meeting were videotaped by PMFA and can be seen here.

slide from a 2011 National Grid presentation to Community Board 6

-The need for water treatment systems was incorporated in a 2007 National Grid Final Remedial Design Work Plan, which NYS DEC signed off on as part of the 50 % Remedial Design Approval.
In-Situ Groundwater Treatment (Section 5.4.3)
Based on the results of the hydrologic model and the final subsurface containment barrier wall configuration, groundwater treatment may be required to address shallow dissolved phased contamination at the site boundaries. As described in Section 5.2.2 above, in the shallow zone, installation of a barrier wall could exacerbate the natural mounding that occurs between Parcels I and II. If the configuration of the barrier wall cannot be adjusted to mitigate these effects then the mounded groundwater will have to be allowed to migrate through or around the containment barrier via perforated sections or treatment windows. In the event that this is necessary, various groundwater treatment technologies will be evaluated and an applicable technology selected. The results of this evaluation will be presented to NYSDEC for review and approval. If bench scale or pilot testing of the groundwater treatment technology is necessary, then an additional work plan will be developed and submitted to NYSDEC for review and approval. 

Since the EPA had observed that coal tar had migrated off the site on Huntington Street, the 2007 plan did call for “Wing walls” along 5th Street and Huntington Street to prevent further migration.  The wings were still part of the plan in this July 2011 work plan document which National Grid submitted to DEC for review and approval to perform a remedial design pilot test program "to demonstrate the application and effectiveness of barrier wall technologies at the site."

As can be clearly seen in the red outline in Figure 1 included in the report, the barrier wall was designed to partially extend along 5th Street and halfway along Huntington Street. 

2011 National Grid document showing 'wing walls' along 5th Street and Huntington Street 
to prevent coal tar from migrating off site

When it comes to the environmental clean-up of our community after more than a century and a half of exposure to carcinogens, we need to make sure that it is done to the highest remediation standards we are entitled to by law.
It seems, by its actions and false claims, New York State intends to be more protective of National Grid, the polluter, than of the interests of local residents.
The State agency has not only allowed National Grid to reduce the level of remediation on Public Place, it has also covered up the fact that it helped remove some key aspects of the clean-up such as a vapor barrier and wing walls, specifically put in place to reduce the likelihood that coal tar will migrate out of the site.

NYS DEC is trying to rewrite its own documented history and is playing politics when it asks for Christos Tsiamis of EPA to retract his statements.  It is displaying contempt for public safety when it disparaged his concerns about the remediation.
Facts and science are the only things that should matter when it comes to public health.  


Margaret said...

"the Gowanus rezoning may very well be one of the greatest environmental injustices in Brooklyn history" Professor Tom Angotti,
Consider the following: As part of the rezoning proposed, the Fifth Avenue Commitee, the nonprofit that is hot to develop and manage ($$$) "affordable housing" on this poisonous land, says that their proposed developer partner "Gowanus Green" can do whatever additional cleaning up necessary after the DEC "clean up" is completed. Pray tell, why would that be necessary if the DEC plan is so good and thorough, and since when is Gowanus Green in the business of remediating former MGP sites for residential development? And who would be liable for health etc. consequences then? The community should be outraged by the DEC, the Fifth Avenue Commitee, Brad Lander, and by City Planning, for trying to pull this crime off -and in the name of, under the guise of, "needing affordable housing" no less.

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for this very detailed and factual post.

Anonymous said...

Katia, I really appreciate, not just your constant vigilance on this, but the depth of the information you provide our community. There just is no other way to make sure our government is working for the good of the people and not the corporations, is there?

Anonymous said...

All of this good information about how bad it could be if Gowanus Green is built. And yet Gowanus Green and the greater Gowanus rezoning will still march on. The current court action only at best will slow it down. None of this is an actual roadblock - full stop. We need to Landerville from being built and to stop him from holding another elected office.

Anonymous said...

Crucial info here. Thank you for digging, Ms. Katia. Creepy to see what the vested interests are pushing here to the detriment of the public. This Public Place thing is dangerous to public health.

Anonymous said...

Paging the New York Times...this is a serious environmental justice disaster in the making. It's deeply disturbing to see this Gowanus Green project being pushed along by Fifth Avenue Committee and Lander, both of whom should know better than to attempt to house low income communities on a tragically toxic site.