The EPA announced this week the addition of 10 hazardous waste sites to the National Priorities List (NPL) of Superfund sites. One of the sites added to the NPL is the super-famous and now Superfunded Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, New York. The inner-city canal, once home to booming industry is now classified as one of the most toxic waterways in the country. Amidst a scuffle between Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to clean-up the waterway without the Superfund stamp, developers’ desire for it to be left alone, and activists who want to return it to its natural state, the national government swept in to save it.
The Gowanus Canal was built in the 19th century to link industry along its banks to New York Harbor. For years factories along its banks dumped raw sewage, chemicals and garbage into the water without reprimand. The canal is home to no known wildlife — it’s oxygen levels actually can’t support life, although it does boast such residents as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, heavy metals, pesticides, PCBs, and volatile organic contaminants. The canal is known to most New Yorkers as a smelly toxic mess, though in recent years activists have been trying to give it a better name.
The National Priorities List is meant to designate contaminated sites as dangerous for human or environmental health and to propose a plan for cleanup and restoration. There are two means of paying for the cleanup. If responsible parties are unknown the funds come from special government allocations. If the responsible parties can be proven, a lengthy legal battle generally follows where the government attempts to force the parties to pay for the cleanup. The Gowanus Canal falls into the latter category and opponents of the Superfund designation — namely Mayor Bloomberg — asserted that government process takes too long and that the city could clean the canal quicker. Others — namely developers looking to cash in on the barren land around the canal — didn’t want a designation or cleanup for fear of the stigma being attached to their projects.
Now Bloomberg has lost and must turn over his plans for cleanup to the government. Of the 1,610 hazardous waste sites added to the NPL since its implementation in 1980, 341 of the sites have been totally rehabilitated and were removed from the list. Though the EPA does state that being added to the NPL commences a long term cleanup process, we’re wondering how “long term” this cleanup is going to be.