The article series on the Superfund has provided a detailed view of the foundation of the program, the types of contamination commonly found on industrial sites, the enforcement methods used by the EPA against the parties responsible for the pollution, the involvement of the community, and spill response protocols. The previous section, Part 3, looked at New Jersey, the state with the highest number of Superfund sites and explored the state level program for environmental cleanup compared to the EPA program.
This installment of the series will examine the criticisms facing the Superfund program from the American public and business community. It will then focus on the Gowanus Canal site in Brooklyn, one of the most challenging sites the Superfund has ever faced.
Criticisms of Superfund
The critics of this government program for environmental cleanup of the worst and most heavily polluted sites in the country feel that the Superfund program is too costly and that it is overly bureaucratic.
These criticisms can be easy for someone outside of the system to make without the full knowledge of what the EPA and the Superfund set out to accomplish. On the surface, it can look like a very expensive program with too much “red tape” and regulations.
However, the reality is that the levels of pollution and toxicity are so rampant and have permeated so deeply into some of these sites, the approach to cleaning them properly is often unclear. In some cases, the polluted materials have sat there for several years, even decades, which creates conditions which are very complicated to remediate.
The argument could be made that the Superfund program is so expensive because of the negligence of the actions by the corporations or entities that operated on the respective sites. The regulations involved in Superfund are necessary because these types of site cleanups are highly complex and that requires a multi-layered approach to insure the integrity of the process is maintained.
In the event that some of the regulations were relaxed in relation to the Superfund procedures, then the risk of an error in the process would bring a tremendous amount of scrutiny to the entire program. The money involved has the tendency to create an environment where they could have wasted resources involved in the process. The “red tape” creates safeguards to prevent funds from being spent incorrectly.
The types and methods for cleanup of these highly polluted sites characteristically are very time consuming in order to be done thoroughly. This long duration of time involved in the remediation of the respective site also creates a situation where the program is criticized, and sometimes harshly criticized.
America is defined by a society of instant gratification where results are expected in a very short time frame. The Superfund site remediation process requires several years of activity from start to finish. This lengthy process timeline can be criticized by members of the government, the media, and the general public.
In response to this criticism, the EPA has made a concerted effort to maximize the news of their successful remediation projects from the Superfund program. The news of this type of success can have very positive impact on the public opinion of the Superfund program. It is easy for most people and groups to get excited about the news of a clean and safe area which used to be polluted with toxic materials.
The Gowanus Canal Site
This site already has generated a great deal of news headlines over the years since it was added as a Superfund site in March 2010, but especially in the closing months of 2013 when the EPA announced their plans for the final stages of the remediation of this heavily polluted area.
In my view, the component of this particular site which is the most compelling is that it is located within such a densely populated area in Brooklyn. This setting made it very difficult to clean up, yet a pressing priority to do so, amidst some very complex circumstances.
Additionally, the canal site was further complicated by the sheer volume of the contamination there which took place over a period of over 150 years. The canal was most heavily trafficked from 1860 -1960 and residents complain of the smell emanating from the area in recent years (www.nytimes.com).
This site will be one of the biggest challenges for the EPA since their first site remediation project at Love Canal in upstate New York. It would require them to go back to the drawing board with multiple plans for the site cleanup based on community and state government feedback.
The Plan to Clean the Canal
The EPA plan for the remediation of the Gowanus Canal site was just recently finalized, and according to a variety of media sources and the EPA press release, the cleanup will take place over the course of 10 – 12 years and cost $506 million.
The plan calls for the removal of contaminated sediment, a cap on the dredged areas, and the disposal of most of the sediment will be done out of the area at another facility. The original plans called for the construction of a facility to handle the disposed waste on the shores of the canal in the Red Hook area, but through community input, that plan was scrapped.
The canal has very high levels of contamination from the industrial activity that took place there as well as from sewage discharge from overflows in the New York City sewer system. The EPA estimates that the Gowanus site might be one of the worst and most polluted waterways in the entire country.
The industrial contaminants involved include: PAH, PCBs, and coal tar. All of these substances are very hazardous on their own, but this site has each one of them present. PAH is a group of chemicals caused by the incomplete burning of coal, oil, gas, wood, and garbage (www.epa.gov). PCBs are a group of chemicals which were contained in coolants and lubricants used in transformers and other electrical equipment until their use was banned in 1979. Both of these chemical groups are cancer causing.
Coal tar is present as a result of the heavy burning of coal which took place in the factories and plants along the canal during the Industrial Revolution. The coal tar remained at high levels and is a very hazardous material particularly when it penetrates underground, as it has at the Gowanus Canal site. When coal tar is gasified it releases cancer causing vapors (www.epa.gov).
The EPA has segmented the canal into 3 portions for the cleanup process:
- Upper: includes the area from the top of the canal to the 3rd Street Bridge
- Middle: includes the area from the 3rd Street Bridge to Hamilton Ave Bridge (this section is the most highly contaminated part of the site)
- Lower: includes the Hamilton Ave Bridge to the mouth of the canal (this section is the least contaminated portion of the site)
The canal was once home to gas plants, tanneries, chemical plants, and dye manufacturing plants. The industrial pollution coupled with the rainwater runoff from the storm drains as well as the previously mentioned sewage overflows created horrible conditions in the canal.
The finalized remediation plan for the Gowanus site requires that the EPA will dredge from the upper and middle portions of the canal a total of 307,000 cubic yards of very highly contaminated sediment (www.epa.gov).
Then, the EPA will take the liquid coal tar that is still bubbling out of the sediment and mix it with cement. Then they will use multiple layers to clean and remediate the site. The “active” layer uses absorbent material designed to remove PAH contaminants.
The “isolation” layer is made up of gravel and sand which insulates the remaining pollutants from exposure. The “armor” layer consists of heavy gravel and stone to prevent erosion of the other layers caused by boats and the changing water currents.
Finally, a layer of clean sand will cover the “armor” layer and serve to restore the canal bed to a natural habitat.
The same process of layering will be repeated in the lower section where the EPA anticipates dredging 280,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment. In the lower section, the 1st Street turning basin will be remediated by the removal of contaminates and the restoration of 475 feet of the basin (www.epa.gov).
The 5th Street turning basin will be completely excavated and restored.
Any liquid coal tar found in the sediment will be removed and transported to a treatment facility out of the area. The EPA also wanted to insure that sewage control mechanisms were put in place as part of the final plan for the cleanup of the site.
Consequently, the EPA will be installing retention tanks at two outfalls in the upper segment of the canal in order to reduce the overflow of contaminated sewage. If these tanks were not installed then the sewage overflow would contaminate the canal again soon after the EPA finished their remediation work.
I mentioned earlier the search procedures that EPA and the Superfund conducts to identify the parties responsible for the pollution at a given site. That component was a point of contention in the Gowanus Canal site because the State of New York wanted to handle the remediation themselves and raise the money through city and state taxes. The state government argued that they could do the Gowanus cleanup faster than the EPA because they were not going to pursue any of the corporate or industrial entities potentially responsible for the pollution.
The EPA ended up gaining the responsibility for the site and they have identified some responsible parties including the State of New York, and the large energy supplier known as National Grid. National Grid purchased the land from other companies in three highly polluted lots along the canal several years ago and took no action to clean up the area (www.epa.gov). All three lots were the former location of three separate natural gas production facilities.
Several other responsible parties have been identified by the EPA and are being pursued for the funds needed to begin the dredging and cleanup, which some news sources are reporting will not begin until 2016.
In the end analysis, the Gowanus Canal site is a catastrophic area of pollution that had to be addressed and remediated in the correct way. In this era of recessionary economic activity, shrinking wages, chronically high unemployment levels, and a high cost of living in New York; the solution of using more taxes to fund the cleanup of the canal would not have been feasible.
The EPA through the Superfund designation offered the terribly polluted site the best chance to be cleaned and thoroughly remediated to restore the canal appropriately. It may take a longer amount of time for the EPA to complete the project, but it will be done in a highly effective manner by people who have the expertise needed to fix a site as badly contaminated as the Gowanus Canal is in its current state.
The next and final component of this article series will take a look at the feedback I have received before and during the process of writing this article series. It will conclude with a look at the future prospects of this important environmental protection program.