Eleventh story in an occasional series on the greening of New York City. Click here to view the series.
NEW YORK -- Floating garbage and oil slicks run the 2-mile length of Brooklyn's Gowanus Canal.
From an industrial area on its southern reaches to residential areas in the north, the canal has long been an eyesore and a nuisance for its neighbors who fear that just sniffing its fumes can make them sick.
Farther north, on the Brooklyn-Queens borough line, Newtown Creek is also in lousy shape. Fouled by chemicals and wastewater, the creek -- a branch of the East River -- was a booming port during World War II and is still home to refineries, cement factories and scrap-metal processing plants.
After being all but ignored by local and state agencies for decades, the Gowanus Canal and Newtown Creek are now poised to become two of the nation's most expensive and politically charged cleanup projects. Scrubbing more than 150 years of industrial pollution in the Gowanus could cost up to $500 million, with Newtown Creek -- which is more industrialized and a mile-and-a-half longer than the Gowanus -- expected to cost still more.
"It's very interesting that we got these two big urban waterway projects going on almost at the same time," said Judith Enck, the administrator of U.S. EPA's Region 2 office in New York.
"Interesting," indeed. Enck's vision for the cleanup, she said, is to transform the canals "from what once was a real example of urban decay" to "an example of urban revitalization and sustainability." But many of the 200 or so people who attended a public meeting on the Superfund cleanups at a public school near the Gowanus last month expressed concerns about immediate health threats from contaminated water, soil and air.
Many raised questions about air quality around the Gowanus, despite studies showing the air here is no dirtier than anywhere else in the city. Most were very upset to hear that sewage will continue to spill into the canal long after the cleanup, the unfortunate result of the city's inadequate sewers, but officials said much of this will be mitigated by opening a pipeline designed to flush the canal with water from the East River.
The canal's neighbors were further dismayed to learn that contaminants dredged from the bottoms will probably be shipped off to hazardous waste dumps. Many said EPA was simply transferring a problem elsewhere.
The meeting was cordial, but Walter Mugdan, EPA Region 2's director of environmental planning, joked that the "love fest" would end as soon as they start negotiating the final cleanup plan.
"It is critical that while we exercise haste we also exercise care," Mugdan said. "We have to constantly be balancing the need and desire to move quickly but the equal need and desire to make sure that we're doing things carefully and right and that we're taking into account all the various different views that are out there."
EPA is promising to tread carefully, involving the community throughout the cleanup.
Brooklyn has organized a large community advisory group (CAG), with more than 60 members, around the Gowanus to keep in touch with federal, state and city authorities.
"I believe it's probably the largest CAG in the country for a Superfund site, and this is Brooklyn so I think that makes a lot of sense," said Jeff Edelstein, an environmental engineer picked by the CAG to be its liaison with the federal government. "There is more community involvement here than perhaps anywhere else."
Enck and her team are already warning that the communities surrounding the sites must be patient -- the Gowanus cleanup won't be finished until 2020 at the earliest, even though EPA says it is ahead of schedule there. But they are also taking pains to ensure New Yorkers that they are ready to hold their hands through every step of the way, consulting with the neighborhoods as much and as often as possible.
"I'm a big believer in public participation," Enck told the gathering late last month. "There's sort of this old pattern of decide and defend, what I call a DAD approach, and I'd much rather engage with the public and businesses and elected officials and local governments and get your input early before final decisions are made."
The companies that EPA believes are at fault for the pollution -- the agency has identified about two dozen potential responsible parties (PRP) so far -- are treading carefully.
Several companies failed to respond publicly to questions about their potential liabilities, and none have speculated about how much they might have to spend on the cleanup.
Officials most familiar with the history of both waterways say that National Grid, a major Northeast electric and gas utility, faces the greatest liability.
EPA's Mugdan cautioned that being identified as a responsible party does not necessarily mean that the company had directly polluted the waterways. Rather, National Grid's acquisition of coal gasification plants alongside the creek and canal leaves it legally liable, he said.
National Grid representatives said the company is conducting additional testing as part of a separate agreement with EPA. But spokeswoman Karen Young was unable to say how much money the company might owe for the cleanup related to its three former coal-to-gas plants along the canal and two along the creek.
"Any talk of total costs or final cleanup at either site is premature," Young said. "We continue to work cooperatively with the agencies that are involved at both sites."
The five coal-to-gas plants -- which provided the city's primary fuel for heating and cooking fuel before gas pipelines became mainstream -- left massive quantities of coal tar and are believed to be the source of the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a carcinogenic byproduct of coal combustion found at both sites. The creek and canal are also polluted with heavy metals, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and occasionally untreated sewage when heavy rain overwhelms the city's wastewater treatment network.
EPA is mainly in charge of dredging the polluted soil lying at the bottom of the waterways. To take care of the surrounding lots, National Grid says it is working with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).
Other companies that could be held liable for the expensive cleanup operations are scrambling to get ahead of the EPA-led cleanup effort.
Kristen Hellmer, a communications adviser for Exxon Mobil Corp., says the company and four others -- oil giants Chevron Corp. and BP PLC and mining company Phelps Dodge Corp. -- have formed the "Newtown Creek group" to work with EPA to finalize plans for the remedial investigation and feasibility study, slated to begin this spring.
BP spokesman Tom Mueller said investigations in the 1970s and '80s determined that BP refinery operations were not at fault for contamination in the creek, but the company has agreed voluntarily to install recovery and remediation equipment on its property.
"BP has expanded and updated this system over time and recently installed four additional recovery wells on its property," Mueller said. "To date, we have recovered more than 3.5 million gallons of free petroleum product from beneath the BP terminal property."
EPA encourages this process. Mugdan said the agency prefers that companies work together on cleanups under Superfund rules, without a court order. Nonetheless, he said, EPA is prepared to wield its legal power to compel companies to participate in Superfund cleanups.
Companies, of course, are all aware of federal legal muscle and are cautious about discussing the cleanup.
"The facilities that the EPA asked about were closed between 1922 and 1950," said Victoria Streitfeld, spokeswoman for Honeywell Inc., another potential responsible party. "We have very limited information on the operation of these facilities."
EPA's feasibility study for the Gowanus Canal won't be finished until the end of the year, after which will follow a public comment period that should last at least 90 days.
A final record of decision on what will be done should be ready by the end of 2012 with designing the cleanup plan taking another three years.
Factor in actual cleanup work, estimated to take five to seven years, and New York may not see a cleaner, less odorous Gowanus Canal until 2022.
The Newtown Creek cleanup will take even longer. A more formal investigation won't start until April or May.
Optimists at EPA do not see a slow cleanup as a problem.
The agency's regional chief, Enck, encouraged families living near Gowanus to think of it as an educational opportunity for their children. Elementary students could begin learning about the Superfund process now and see it completed by their graduation from high school.
"Bring them out there, show them the waterway today, and then show them in 10 years," Enck said. "I think it's a teachable moment in terms of an environmental recovery."