Tuesday, September 29, 2009

We're from the federal government and we're here to help you ... clean up this mess. 

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Don't 'superfund' the Gowanus

Who should clean up [Brooklyn's] Gowanus Canal? The city's been masterminding a series of reclamation projects ... but now the federal Environmental Protection Agency is looking to designate it a Superfund site....

Until recent years, the Gowanus was abandoned by all but neighborhood activists. The site was industrial going back to the 1860s, even "hosting" coal-gasification plants. Even today, the city sewers dump 300 million gallons a year of raw waste into the canal.

Nonetheless, old-time home-owning families, newly arrived artists and gentrifiers, public-housing residents and small-business owners fought tenaciously to attract new investment and get government's attention for remediating the canal and the surrounding land.

By last year, their efforts were paying off -- as the Army Corps of Engineers moved to complete its feasibility study for restoring the canal's ecological health via dredging, and the city's housing agency chose a development consortium to build market-rate and affordable housing, with generous public space as well.

Now the neighborhood finds itself with two contradictory government clean-up plans -- one federal, one local -- and with virulent disagreements about which is better.

The federal Superfund promises big money extracted from the bad-guy industrialists who dumped waste into the canal for 150 years. But the Bloomberg administration, with the Corps, could deliver results far sooner -- indeed, the Superfund's involvement has put the local plans on hold.

At a public meeting last spring, the EPA's Walter Mugdan told the irate community that only the federal government has the money to restore an urban waterway this degraded.

But in fact, the feds don't actually come up with the necessary money. Instead, they designate the site toxic -- driving off all prospective private investment -- and then search for past polluters ("potentially responsible parties") to sue into producing the funds.

In the years since Gowanus was first opened to industry and shipping in the 1860s, it has seen some 1,500 property owners come and go -- only a few of whom can be identified today. And Superfund would likely require decades of research and litigation before the feds actually start doing anything. Remember -- the Hudson and Passaic Rivers were designated as Superfund sites in 1984; a quarter-century later, their cleanup has only just begun.

Plus, the Gowanus polluter owners that can be identified ... have already pledged to partner with the city to fund the cleanup.

In a case like this, in which the past polluters' incentives "to fight are so high, a key factor in getting through the logjam is getting people to do it willingly," notes Cas Holloway, chief of staff to Bloomberg's deputy mayor for operations...

...the threat of Superfund is also undoing the rest of of the Bloomberg strategy -- private investment and development. A recent study by the Department of City Planning concluded that 68 projects -- residential, retail, medical and commercial -- are ready for development. But few if any will get financing (or environmental insurance!) if the feds designate the site as toxic.

These projects are now on hold, waiting for the Superfund controversy to resolve itself. And as the Gowanus neighborhood has bitterly learned, being on hold is tantamount to not happening....

Public Place, a six-acre contaminated site, was to be cleaned up and developed by real-estate firm Hudson Cos. with 774 apartments (541 below market) and a public park joining a waterfront esplanade. The owner of an adjoining warehouse announced last spring that he was interested in incorporating his land into the site, building another 500 affordable apartments.

Now, says Hudson partner Alan Bell, they've halted the project: "We've spent a lot of money to get to this point -- but we're now in limbo because of the potential Superfund designation"... [NY Post]