Toxic history, natural beauty and a rapidly changing neighborhoods all converge on the banks of the Gowanus Canal.

Photo by: Adi Talwar

Toxic history, natural beauty and a rapidly changing neighborhoods all converge on the banks of the Gowanus Canal.

This article was reported by and originally published on August 22 by Gothamist.

On a Saturday in June, as the sun began to set over old factories and parking lots in Gowanus, residents and visitors were clearly enjoying the first day of summer. Guests in evening wear and spiked heels spilled from industrial buildings converted to event spaces, past food carts parked outside. Three men worked on a mural spanning the entire side of a Bond Street building and families poured out of the recently opened Whole Foods. A visitor could be lulled into forgetting she was perched on a bridge over one of the most polluted sites in Brooklyn—and the United States.

In 1980, Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, commonly known as the Superfund, which enables the federal government to not only clean up highly contaminated sites, but also to hold financially liable those it finds responsible for the pollution. In the past five years, the Environmental Protection Agency has found three sites in New York City that qualify for Superfund designation: Newtown Creek, running between the border of Brooklyn and Queens; the Gowanus Canal in western Brooklyn; and the old Wolff-Alport building in Ridgewood, Queens, mere feet from Brooklyn.

All three sites, which at the height of their activity lay in highly industrial areas, now sit in neighborhoods taking on an increasingly residential character, with housing prices in some rising out of reach for many New Yorkers.

You might think Superfund designations would deter anticipated development around the three sites. Instead, the remediation projects may pave the way for further gentrification of these once industrial neighborhoods and the working-class communities around them.

“Smelling Committees”

A stone’s throw from Newtown Creek, one of the most polluted waterways in America, a mixed-use development on Manhattan Avenue will soon offer retail and 210 apartments. On a recent afternoon, bare-chested male models waited for a photo shoot near an entrance to a nature trail that runs along the creek’s edge. A hotel just a few hundred yards from the waterfront boasted of its location “in the industrial chic area of north Greenpoint.”

Stretching 3.8 miles between Brooklyn and Queens, the Creek has been a focus of environmental concern in the city since the 19th century when “smelling committees” were introduced to test the water for sludge build up. Pollution of Newtown Creek can be traced back to 1867 when Charles Pratt constructed America’s first modern refinery. The surrounding area quickly became a major industrial center. Over the next century, oil refineries and storage facilities opened along the creek; eventually leaking millions of gallons of oil into the water and under the streets of Greenpoint. Today, it contains an estimated 30 million gallons of spilt oil. The creek bed is also home to a 15-foot layer of sludge, sometimes referred to as “black mayonnaise.”

In addition to oil pollution, New York City’s outdated sewer system—large parts of which combine stormwater with sewage in a manner than can overwhelm treatment plants and lead to large outflows of toxic water into waterways—has added to the toxicity of Newtown Creek. CSOs, or combined sewage overflows, deliver raw sewage into it.

In 2008, Senator Hillary Clinton and Representatives Anthony Weiner and Nydia Velazquez put pressure on the EPA to test the creek and see if Newtown qualified for the Superfund program. Two years later, Newtown Creek was declared a Superfund site, and in 2011 the EPA signed an administrative order of consent with six “potentially responsible parties”: BP America, the Brooklyn Union Gas Company, National Grid, ExxonMobil, Phelps Dodge Refining Corporation, Texaco, and (because of the CSO problem) the City of New York.

Exxon has already agreed to pay fines and cleanup costs for the oil spill that’s under the land in Greenpoint, but responsibility for the stuff in the creek is a separate matter. Further research on who is to blame—and to what extent each is financially liable for the cleanup, which may cost hundreds of millions of dollars—is underway. Meanwhile, the EPA is involved in the remedial investigation and feasibility study portion of the Superfund process, which consists of preparing for and getting started on the first stages of the site cleanup.

The work began this spring. According to EPA Region 2 Public Information Officer Elias Rodriguez, the EPA has already done extensive surveying at Newtown Creek, “including aerial photography, sonar and magnetic surveying and shoreline surveys” which have confirmed the extent to which the creek is contaminated. More studies are planned, including water and sediment sampling, as well as tests on the fish and crab currently living in the creek. The aim is to learn more about which toxins are present, and what parts of the creek have the highest concentrations of pollution.

A local community organization, the Newtown Creek Alliance, which works closely with the EPA, has high hopes for the future of the creek, including a long-term goal of making it swimmable. In addition, the Newtown Creek Community Advisory Group (CAG), which is facilitated by the EPA, plays a role in communicating community needs to the EPA.

Meanwhile, the once industrial neighborhoods surrounding the creek are rapidly changing. These changes began years before the Newtown Creek Superfund designation—fostered by the Bloomberg administration’s rezoning of the Brooklyn waterfront in 2005—but there’s little evidence that the Superfund cleanup has hindered development, or that builders are waiting for the area to be cleaned before throwing up new structures.

According to the Furman Center’s 2013 State of New York City’s Housing and Neighborhoods, the community board on the Brooklyn side of the creek saw more than 4,400 new residential units come on line in the past four years. The number of units covered by new certificates of occupancy did dip in 2011, but surged again in 2012 and 2013. While the community board covers a big chunk of northwest Brooklyn—including areas distant from the canal—Department of Buildings records show at least 14 applications so far this year for new buildings in the immediate vicinity of the waterway.

Mike Schade, a community activist and the co-chair of the CAG, says the EPA’s work has been visible and that scientists and researchers can be regularly seen along the creek collecting samples. However there is still much work to be done, amid concern that long-term residents might be squeezed out by market forces in the meantime.

“The Superfund process is very long and exhausting,” he says. “Also, we think [the creek] should be cleaned up for the families and the workers that have lived adjacent of the creek for decades.”

There’s some good news in that regard: The building on Manhattan Avenue will reserve half its units for targeted income groups.

Cooler than it is contaminated?

Where 2nd Street runs into the west bank of Gowanus Canal, all the complexities of the site come to rest. There’s a rowboat jutting out of the earth with a message welcoming everyone to “Brooklyn’s Coolest Superfund Site.” A sign nearby warns against even touching the water, while down the block construction is underway on a massive residential project that was abandoned by one developer because of the Superfund designation, only to be taken up by another. Renderings of the future building show kayakers paddling past.

Paradoxes abound along the Gowanus: The EPA says the 1.8-mile canal contains “PCBs, coal tar wastes, heavy metals and volatile organics,” but it is also home to wildlife such as egrets and crabs, and its waters bear recreational activity like canoeing.

Beginning in 1645 when the first gristmill in New Netherland opened along the Gowanus Creek, demand grew for a larger commercial waterway connecting various industrial sites in the area. In the late 1860s, the canal was completed and quickly became the center of Brooklyn’s maritime and commercial activity. But less than a decade after its completion, the Board of Health declared the canal a “nuisance” due to its lack of a flushing system: Because the canal came to a dead end, toxins collected in the still water.

Things did not improve over the next century or so. In 2009, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation requested that the Gowanus Canal be nominated to the National Priorities list. The Bloomberg administration attempted to block the Superfund listing, arguing the city could do a quicker clean-up than the EPA. Then-Councilman Bill de Blasio opposed the Gowanus Superfund designation, saying he was afraid the feds wouldn’t have enough money to complete the job.

The city may also have been concerned about the bill it might have to pay under the federal cleanup rules. As at Newtown Creek, the city’s outdated sewage system contributes to the pollution in Gowanus. Indeed, after the site was designated part of the Superfund in March 2010, EPA named a number of potentially responsible parties including National Grid, Con Edison, and the City of New York. The total cost of the cleanup is estimated at about $506 million over 10 years, and the city may have to pay a large share of it.

Another worry of the Bloomberg administration, clearly, was that the Superfund label would be like a Scarlet Letter for developers trying to build up the area, whose location makes it a natural link between the already hot Carroll Gardens and Prospect Heights.

But those worries seem to have been overblown. If the Superfund label has had any effect on the area, says Aleksandra Scepanovic, the managing director of Ideal Properties Group, which has several properties in the area, “it’s probably very positive.” Residential demand is insatiable, she says.

The Whole Foods and the 700-unit residential development on 2nd Street are just a few of the signs of febrile activity. Other active construction sites abound on the west side of the canal; on the east, restaurants and art galleries have poked up amid warehouses and truck depots. “When I moved to Gowanus 15 years ago, we paid around $200,000 for a house a block from the Canal, a place where you went to illegally dump stuff, from bodies to trash,” Diegel says. “That same house is now $2,000,000, right next to an under-construction waterfront park, a new community boathouse, and a Whole Foods Gowanus viewing deck where you can sip organic beers.”

According to EPA Community Involvement Coordinator Natalie Loney’s speech at the TEDxGowanus event in January, the EPA’s proposed plan for the cleanup of the canal includes the removal of contaminated sediment by dredging, capping dredged areas, controlling CSOs and excavating multiple basins. Like Newtown Creek, the project is still in the remedial design phase.

But the EPA and the de Blasio administration have been at odds over how that phase should proceed. In May, the feds complained that the city was delaying its compliance with parts of the clean-up and issued an order compelling the city to complete some preliminary work. The city, for its part, said the order was unnecessary and that it had been negotiating in good faith, given its concerns about the cost, duration and impact of the cleanup on the neighborhood.

In one filing last fall, the city told the EPA it was “very concerned that the remedy, as currently proposed, is likely to fail, as the Proposed Plan does not include adequate measures to control the significant sources of contamination.” It concluded that the plan as proposed “will result in recontamination of the canal and will have long term adverse impacts on the surrounding communities.”

One local group that has been involved in the Superfund process, the Gowanus Canal Community Advisory Group, said in June that the city’s negotiating position, “has not produced the positive results that are required for the clean-up the Gowanus Canal to proceed within the proposed schedule.”

But the thirst for space in Gowanus is unquenchable. “Even if the canal is home to three-headed fish, if you can’t find a two-bedroom in Park Slope, people are willing and able to forego safety,” jokes Scepanovic. “It’s really an economic decision.”

However, she notes that the cleanup of the canal could be seen as part of a neighborhood “getting ready for the next century.”

Radioactive waste is so “not a problem”

The city’s newest Superfund location is the former Wolff-Alport chemical company site in Ridgewood, Queens. In the 1940s, the company began processing monazite, a rare mineral, creating residues that, according to the EPA, contained radioactive elements. A study was conducted in 1988 investigating radioactive contamination, and while this contamination was confirmed, radioactive levels were not considered a danger to the public.

But a second study in 2009 found that radioactive contamination stretched 20 feet below the site and was present in sewage lines and surrounding soil as well. According to an EPA community update released in June, the Wolff-Alport company disposed of thorium waste in the city sewers and on the company property itself. Wolff-Alport continued to do so until 1947 when the federal government ordered the company to stop.

Complicating the contamination, the former Wolff-Alport building is now home to a construction business and an auto repair shop that sit directly on hot spots, where the radioactivity could pose a health risk for employees who experience long-term exposure.

In May, the Wolff-Alport site was officially added to the National Priorities List, making the site eligible for Superfund dollars. According to the EPA’s Rodriguez, the Wolff-Alport site is now in the remedial investigation and feasibility study phase of the Superfund process; since it’s so new to the program, the extent of the contamination—as well as who is to be held responsible—has not entirely been determined.

Some action has already been taken to reduce radiation levels in the area, like placing shielding made of steel and lead along the sidewalk surrounding the building. In addition, the EPA has installed “systems to reduce or address radioactive gas in affected interior space of businesses.” These mitigation systems should help to prevent radon gas from entering work areas. Fences around vacant and contaminated land have been erected to protect the community from potential exposure.

Rodriguez says the EPA has already spent an estimated $2 million on the Wolff-Alport site. Still, more work is needed to minimize the risk from long-term exposure. The clean-up could potentially end up cost millions of dollars.

Brooklyn Community Board 4, which serves the Bushwick neighborhood just adjacent to the site, says it has stayed involved with the EPA since the beginning of the Superfund process and has worked to keep the community updated on both cleanup progress and future planning. During a monthly community board meeting in October of 2012, chairwoman Julie Dent announced that “testing indicates that there is no immediate threat to nearby residents, employees or customers of businesses in the affected area along Irving and Cooper Avenues.” According to the minutes of the group’s April 2014 meeting, there was reference to the construction of a new park in the area that would have to undergo testing for contaminants before construction.

Technically in Queens, the Wolff-Alport site sits at the far edge of Bushwick, on a side of Irving Avenue that’s still heavily industrial, adjacent to a cemetery—as remote as one can get from Brooklyn’s gentrification wave while still being connected to the borough.

But south of Irving Avenue, the area is residential, and there is evidence of coming change. There are signs nearby offering cash for houses. A two-story apartment building, sold last year by its long-time owner for just over $500,000, is being rehabbed. And near the corner of Irving Avenue, Brookland Capital is building four attached four-story buildings that will offer condos in the spring.

“We really like it because it’s still affordable, it’s on the L train, it’s in transition and it’s welcoming,” says Boaz Gilad, a Brookland partner, about the neighborhood. Brookland has 14 other buildings in Bushwick and 48 active projects throughout Brooklyn.

And the only hint of the federal cleanup is a radiation symbol that an artist has stenciled in yellow paint on corner trash cans. Asked if he expects the Superfund site nearby to be an issue, Gilad says experience tells him it won’t be.

“I have four projects next to the Superfund site in Gowanus, and it’s not a problem,” he says.