Cleanup Plan Proceeds for Gowanus Canal

The New York Times


September 26, 2013

Industry Still Churns, Even as Cleanup Plan Proceeds for a Canal


The federal government is about to release its final, $500 million cleanup plan for the Gowanus Canal, one of New York City’s two Superfund sites, a long-awaited moment in the effort to cleanse more than a century of environmental abuse.

But even on the eve of its purging, the Gowanus Canal remains very much a garbage dump for the city. Along the banks of the canal one recent morning, just a tin can’s toss from the oily green waters, a giant claw grabbed at a tower of scrap metal, like a crane in an arcade game. In the lot over, delivery trucks idled behind oil storage tanks. Near them, concrete mixers cranked, churned their ingredients and coughed up dust.

“Somebody needs to heat homes and recycle metal and clean out garbage,” said Mike Petrosino, co-owner of a fifth-generation, family-owned business that operates Benson Metal, one of two scrap-metal yards that abut the canal and use it for loading and unloading barges. “The canal acts as an infrastructure that supports the city.”

Loud, dirty industry has been entwined with the canal for generations, ever since barges delivered brownstone and coal to build Brooklyn’s row houses and light its parlor lamps.

The bulk of the pollution was caused by long-closed factories and by decades of untreated sewage carried into the canal by city drains. But businesses currently along the canal have been fingered by the state or environmentalists for sometimes treating the canal like a waste dump. The environmental group Riverkeeper, which monitors local waterways, has in recent months filed lawsuits against Benson Metal, Greco Brothers Concrete, and Sixth Street Iron and Metal, accusing them of violating the Federal Water Pollution Control Act by allowing dirty storm water to run off their sites and into the canal without permits or controls.

Joseph Greco Jr. of Greco Brothers Concrete declined to comment, and his lawyer did not return calls. Sixth Street Iron and Metal has since filed the necessary plans and permit requests, its vice president, Anthony De Conciliis, said.

“We want to be here a long time,” Mr. De Conciliis said. “And we believe it’s extremely important that we do things that are environmentally sound.

“In the ’50s, people would smoke in offices because they didn’t think secondhand smoke would harm anybody. We just got to adapt, adapt environmental conservancy into the business. We are a recycling facility at the end of the day.”

In a settlement with the state last year, Benson agreed to pay $85,000 for more than 100 instances over 15 months of dropping metal into the water while loading barges. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation recently fined Petroleum Tank Cleaners on Butler Street, about a block from the canal, $32,500 for a spill and other violations, according to state records. The company did not respond to messages seeking comment.

A bus company and other businesses owned by Jacob Marmurstein have been fined more than $500,000 for spilling oil, dumping debris into the canal and other violations, state environmental officials said.

Just last month, the bulkhead at Benson collapsed, sending metal junk and concrete blocks into the water.

Riverkeeper, which was out on the canal the day after the collapse, notified the Environmental Conservation Department, which along with the federal Environmental Protection Agency is working with Benson to stabilize the bank and build a new bulkhead.

“It’s just another insult,” Phillip Musegaas, a program director at Riverkeeper, said of the collapse. “We’re talking about a company that is not managing its sites and is not concerned with preventing further environmental hazards.”

The issue is also a strain for Mr. Petrosino.

“A good portion of our day is not centered on dealing with the customer and building relationships, but talking about issues of compliance and regulations,” said Mr. Petrosino, 42, who began at the company when he was around age 8, riding in the truck next to his father. “It starts to distract you from your core business, which is handling materials.” Mr. Petrosino added, “It’s one of those obstacles that need to be addressed and handled, and we’re doing the best we can.”

Much of the environmental injury is a vestige of the past, principally from three old manufacturing plants that turned coal into gas. Over time, the gooey byproduct seeped into the ground and into the shallow water. A thick mud of coal tar now oozes from the bottom and wells to the top, the sediment resembling sheets of shiny metal floating on the water.

While the canal is no longer used as Brooklyn’s privy, during heavy rains discharges from the city’s antiquated sewer system still foul the water and give off a stench. There are also metals like mercury and lead, industrial chemicals and traces of pesticides. There are bikes and other sunken vessels. And there is dirty groundwater as well as storm water that picks up dirt and other pollutants from the remaining industries.

Almost everything around the canal has changed in the last 20 years. Grit-loving young residents embrace the idea of paying $600,000 for one-bedroom apartments and dining not far from where untreated sewage once streamed past. Restaurants serving duck pastrami, smoked jowl cabbage and molasses-brined pork chops have sprouted, along with art studios and new neighborhood acronyms. The communities around it, not to mention developers, have latched onto the canal as a tangible link to the borough’s industrial past, while also pushing for its cleanup.

In 2010, over the objections of city officials who proposed an alternative cleanup plan, fearing a federal label would scare away further development, the E.P.A. branded the canal a Superfund site, meaning the government would oversee the cleanup, and pursue polluters to handle the effort and foot the bill. (The city’s other Superfund site is the similarly fouled Newtown Creek.)

The agency released its preliminary plan for the Gowanus Canal in 2012 and is expected to make it final by Monday. The estimated cost of half a billion dollars is to be spread among more than three dozen “potentially responsible parties.”

They are mostly companies and a few government entities like the City of New York and the United States Navy, for ship work that polluted the canal. Many of the original businesses that once operated side by side along the canal have since merged, changed names or moved away, including Brooklyn Union Gas, which eventually rolled into National Grid; Continental Oil; and Standard Oil. When companies have been sold or merged, the successor company as well as the current property owner assume the liability. Companies that produced or transported the hazardous substances are also considered responsible.

The cleanup, expected to begin in 2015, will focus on the toxic muck at the bottom, dredging the 10 feet of mud, mixing some of the remaining sediment with cement to prevent it from rising to the top, then capping it with materials like clay, gravel and sand to prevent erosion. The E.P.A. will also aim to reduce the sewer overflow from the city drains. After that, the view can turn to issues like the continuing dirty storm water runoff from existing businesses.

“The mud dwarfs it all,” said Walter Mugdan, the regional Superfund director for the agency. “But once we clean the mud up, the remaining pollution becomes even a greater concern, because that’s what’s left.”

The cleanup is expected to take 8 to 10 years. Maintenance will go on indefinitely. Still, the canal will never really be without taint, Mr. Mugdan said. The contamination in some places goes 100 feet deep. The waters will most likely never be apt for swimming, and who knows how long before the fish are good to eat.

“But we can make a huge improvement over where it is now,” Mr. Mugdan said. Eventually, the water will clear, the ecosystem will revive and, he added, “the area will not stink to high heaven as it does now.”

On a recent mild morning, the stench of garbage wafted over the canal. Trucks rumbled off the Gowanus Expressway, down the industrial business zone of Smith Street. Some with painted-on names like “The Monster” and “Mr. Rubbish” idled at the curb, while the giant crane moved metal scrap from one looming pile to another.