Superfund: What Will It Mean for Gowanus?

By Kieran K. Meadows and Mike Reicher

For nearly six decades, Vivian Scarpati has lived within blocks of the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn. In the 1970s, she married a man who lived on her street. Her husband’s family had lived a block east of the Canal—for four generations.

Tragedy struck in 1981: Scarpati’s husband, James, passed away from lung and bone cancer at 33 years old, leaving her with two kids to raise. Perhaps only a coincidence, her husband’s grandfather also died young of cancer.

And perhaps also only a coincidence, the Gowanus had long been a heavily polluted industrial area. The Canal was created in the 1860s to bring raw
w material to rapidly developing residential Brooklyn. Within years, toxic waste was in the water and on its banks.

“There were other people in the neighborhood who died around the same age, so we always wondered,” Scarpati said. For over 25 years she has wondered; no one has conducted a comprehensive study of residents’ health in the area.

It is impossible to conclusively link Scarpati’s death, or illness in general, to contamination, scientists say. There can be myriad possible factors. Even so, for residents who live near the Gowanus Canal, concerns about toxic hazards are certainly legitimate. Dangerous chemicals—usually measured in parts per million or billion—have been measured in parts per hundred here.

“It’s dangerous, let’s face it,” said Linda Mariano, a neighborhood resident since 1974 and member of the group, Friends and Residents Of the Greater Gowanus. “The federal government said it’s highly toxic,” she said, as she stood on the Carroll Street Bridge gagging on the putrid air. “There are dozens of contaminants that I can barely understand or even read, they’re so exotic sounding. But they are real. And we should not be living with this.”

They may not have to. After years of debate, the federal Environmental Protection Agency fhas inally declared the Canal a “Superfund” site. It’s a designation reserved for the nation’s most contaminated toxic waste sites.

Yet a careful examination by the NYCity News Service of thousands of pages of documents has illustrated just how entrenched the pollution actually is. As early as the 1880s, local residents have protested the contamination, sewage overflows and foul odors. Public records have also revealed a number of companies are potentially liable for clean-up costs. Some joined with developers and property owners to form a coalition opposed to Superfund and to support the city’s plan. Details also emerged about the city’s strategy to avoid a listing. And interviews with various stakeholders and scientists have illuminated the complex nature of a cleanup, potential health risks accompanying development plans, and competing visions for the Canal’s future.

For nearly a year, residents, politicians, businesspeople and others battled over the EPA’s consideration of the 1.8-mile waterway for a Superfund listing. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg opposed the Superfund process and instead the city presented its own alternative clean-up proposal. His administration said a listing would lower property values and delay or even kill ambitious development plans for the area.

EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck has disputed some of the city’s claims and said the Superfund process was superior to the city’s alternative. “We have determined that it is the most efficient and comprehensive cleanup,” Enck said, estimating it would take 10-12 years. She also added that it took decades for the Canal to become polluted so a cleanup that lasts as long should be reasonable. “This is not going to happen overnight,” Enck said.

Although the Superfund cleanup will take years, and possibly decades, some local residents can hardly contain their excitement when envisioning a clean canal.

“If we were able to clean it up and restore the ecosystem—wow, what a great resource it could be for the community,” said Ludger Balan, an area resident and program director of the Urban Divers Estuary Conservancy, an environmental group. “Engaging people in coming out to the water—it could be a place you could bring your kids.”

Balan has long studied the Canal and sees more than just pollution when he scans the banks. He sees America’s growth, including when the nation’s first president visited the area. “The kind of history the Canal has, there would be plaques all along it: ‘Here’s where George Washington sailed across.’ ‘Here are the historic bridges,’” said Balan.

But that’s only a vision. “For our community, it’s been no more than a blight,” he said.

The prospect of economic development along the Canal has long been appealing. The Canal sits in a valley between the desirable neighborhoods of Park Slope and Carroll Gardens. For Mayor Bloomberg, whose legacy includes rezoning former industrial areas into a mix of residential and other uses and who has cheered new construction, the location is too tempting not to pursue.

The city claimed there was no time to waste and that polluters would pay sooner for a cleanup if the Canal was not on the Superfund list. But development critics argued that a comprehensive cleanup was required and that this would happen only under Superfund.

Officially the “Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980,” the Superfund process forces polluters to pay for cleanups, through lawsuits if necessary. If polluters cannot be found, then the EPA is able to use some of its own funds. The EPA estimates the total cost of the Gowanus Canal cleanup will be about $300-500 million.

The EPA’s announcement clears the way for the next stage of the process to begin. The EPA says it hopes to complete a Remedial Investigation and an Ecological and Risk Assessment by the end of the year.

Understanding how the Canal is polluted is key to finding a comprehensive solution. It is, however, complicated. At least three distinct areas have been polluted.


First is the water itself. The quality of the water has been tainted over time, due to accidental and intentional toxic spills. Complicating matters, due to its relatively low level, the Canal receives sewage overflow and street run-off that cascades from surrounding neighborhoods when it rains heavily. This is often the source of pathogens in the water and the material seen floating on its surface.

Second, pollution is present in the Canal banks and the land farther from the water, known as the “upland” areas. Over generations, the pollution—from direct spills or waste disposal—has spilled onto the land nearer Carroll Gardens and Park Slope, both of which are family neighborhoods. Also, because of the soil composition, some of the contaminants have seeped from the water into the land—sort of a two-way toxic street.

Third, at least six feet of sediment make up the bed beneath the water. Contaminants include coal tar sludge, heavy metals, PCBs, pesticides, and volatile organic compounds, all of which can be carcinogenic. Scientists also talk about a chemical “plume” that exists below the sediment. It contains some of the most hazardous toxins that possibly leach into the water. Roughly the top three feet of sediment are comprised of settled material. The bottom three feet consists of accumulated sediment that traces its contamination back over a century and a half.

One of the most spectacular incidents was a massive 1976 fire at the Patchogue Oil Terminal. It destroyed underground fuel tanks and resulted in about 2 million gallons of oil spilling into the Canal—at the time, the largest oil spill in the nation’s history.

But this sort of pollution wasn’t always there. Prior to the days of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, the Gowanus was a tidal inlet comprised of small creeks winding through fertile salt marshes. Before the 1860s, the Gowanus Creek was teeming with oysters, shrimp, soft-shell crab, lobsters, clams, a host of fish species, as well as deer and beavers that roamed the grasslands, and a remarkable array of bird species. But by the second half of the 19th century, an exploding population and the rise of manufacturing began rapidly destroying the animal and plant habitats.

In the late 1840s, the United States’ western border had just recently reached the Pacific Ocean and steamboats roared through bays, inlets, and rivers transporting materials for the country’s rapid expansion. To accommodate growing industrialization, in 1848 the New York State Legislature authorized the construction of a canal, two and a half miles long, secured by bulkheads that would allow ships to navigate in and out. By the 1860s the Canal was completed, and it quickly became the hub of Brooklyn’s maritime and commercial activity. Stone that was used to build up brownstone and limestone homes was brought in through the Gowanus.

Coal yards, sawmill and lumberyards, coal manufacturing gas plants, oil refineries, printing, paint and ink factories, cement makers, a tartar manufacturer, soap makers, chemical plants, machine shops and tanneries sprouted up along the embankments.

Within a few short decades neighborhood residents began to complain about pollution and odors. The contamination was compounded by a sewer system that deposited raw waste from surrounding neighborhoods directly into the canal and residents’ dumping of garbage in the streets and water.

In 1880 and 1885 the Canal was dredged to deepen the water, which had become so shallow from sewage and waste that ships were getting grounded in the muck.  As government officials and business owners fought over who would pay for canal cleanups and improvements, some local residents concluded that the Canal should be closed altogether. A commission was formed in the late 1880s to study the issue and then report to the mayor.

The pollution was the death knell for Gowanus’ sea and plant life. Though the state passed a bill making it illegal to dump industrial waste and refuse into waterways containing oyster beds in 1886, businesses flagrantly ignored the law.


Hundreds of companies and government entities have polluted the Gowanus Canal since it began hosting ships with industrial cargo in the 1860s. Some continue to pollute today.

The most notorious actors were three manufactured gas plants (MGPs), which spewed coal tar and chemicals into the water and onto the banks of the Canal. These plants produced fuel oil for gas street lamps and heaters during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Near the turn of the 20th century, the MGPs were acquired by Brooklyn Union Gas, which operated them into the 1960s. Eventually, through various mergers and acquisitions, National Grid, a multinational electricity and natural gas corporation, became the owner of the three sites. The company has been working with the state Department of Environmental Conservation through its “Brownfield” program to clean up the contaminated land so that it can be redeveloped for other uses.

Today, National Grid and others may be on the hook for cleaning up both their own sites and the Canal itself.

In 2007, National Grid’s predecessor company, KeySpan, prepared a report identifying the nature and location of contaminants, as well as many of the industrial companies that have existed along the Canal.

Karen Young, a spokeswoman for National Grid, said the company had supported the city’s alternative cleanup plan because it closely would have involved the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has already been working on a Gowanus cleanup project. Also the Army Corps has unique experience working in urban waterways around the country.

Bloomberg officials consistently cited the city’s partnership with National Grid as proof they could get responsible parties to voluntarily step forward to contribute funds for a cleanup, which was a linchpin of their plan. They argued that many years of litigation would delay the cleanup process as companies defend themselves against EPA lawsuits; this scenario has played out at other Superfund sites.

Caswell F. Holloway, the commissioner of the city Department of Environmental Protection and the mayor’s point man on the Gowanus issue, explained last year how the city would have gotten companies to voluntarily pay: “We’re saying ‘Look, you’re going to have to get involved in this one way or another-—either you’re going to be sued and get forced to pay or we can work out a plan, get it done more quickly, and you don’t have to go through the cost of litigation and so forth,’” he said.

The city hoped that it could leverage its relationship with the Army Corps to provide an added financial incentive for companies to step forward on their own. City officials wanted use federal matching funds from Congress through the Water Resources Development Act. They said this would provide 65 percent of the total cost, leaving only 35 percent to be paid by the city and liable companies, reducing the portion those companies will have to pay. However, the federal funds are not guaranteed.

State officials were not convinced. In an August letter to Holloway, Stuart F. Gruskin, the executive deputy commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which had originally requested the EPA consider the Gowanus for its Superfund list, seemed doubtful about the viability of the city’s plan. “There are many assumptions in the proposal, including among other things, a requirement for a very high degree of cooperation among responsible parties,” he wrote.

Holloway also pointed to National Grid as a party that could have signed a binding agreement with the EPA to clean the Canal, an agreement legally required by the alternative approach under which the city submitted its plan. Yet the company appeared to be open to working with the feds whether the Canal was listed or not.

“Given the positive interaction that we have had with the EPA and the openness towards all ideas that they have shown, we are confident that these same benefits can be achieved with either the traditional or alternative regulatory process,” Young said.

In its announcement designating the Canal a Superfund site, the EPA named a number of companies it is holding responsible for contamination (potentially responsible parties or PRPs), with more to be identified in the coming months. Walter Mugdan, the Superfund director for the region, said that an agreement has already been reached with National Grid. Other PRPs include the City of New York, the U.S. Navy, Con Ed, Chemtura Corporation, Rapid American Corporation, Brinks, Beazer East, and Cibro Petroleum Products.

ConEd, the major gas and electric utility, had reportedly spilled oil and gasoline from 14 underground storage tanks located just two blocks east of the canal. In 2002 it removed those tanks, which were the subject of at least six reported spills. Besides the reported incidents, regulators have found illegal levels of volatile organic compounds and lead in the soil and groundwater near the old tanks.

This location used to be closer to the water. Prior to the 1950s, the 1st Street Basin extended from the Canal eastward toward 3rd Avenue. It was filled in sometime between 1953 and 1965. It is unknown what contaminants might be in the landfill.

Bob McGee, a spokesman for ConEd, said that the company’s environmental department wasn’t aware of the 1st Street Basin. “We don’t feel we have a role based on where we were located and what we did,” he said before the EPA made the Superfund designation.

The EPA requested documents and information about two of ConEd’s facilities – the refueling and truck yard near 3rd Avenue and its Gowanus substation located at the intersection of 27th Street and 3rd Avenue. ConEd lawyers replied with a detailed, firmly worded response.

“Con Edison expressly denies any liability for contamination at the Gowanus Canal Site, or for any investigation, response or remediation costs for the Gowanus Canal Site,” they wrote.

So at least one potentially responsible party has begun to fulfill the Bloomberg administration’s prophecy of litigation. “Obviously, there are a lot of lawyers involved. Who knows where it’s going to go,” said McGee.

A slew of toxic chemicals have been detected in the soil surrounding Chemtura Corporation’s former plant near the mouth of the Canal. Chemtura acquired the property in 2005 when the previous owner, Witco Corporation, was merged into the larger organization. Today, Chemtura is a global corporation with $3.8 billion in annual sales. The Gowanus plant closed in 1999, but before that groundwater samples had shown elevated concentrations of benzene, acetone, lead and cadmium and other chemicals. A phone message left with Chemtura seeking comment was not returned.

In recent months, the EPA sent more than 20 letters notifying other companies that they may be on the hook to pay for the cleanup.

One of the recipients of those letters was Amerada Hess Corporation, a global oil and natural gas company, which has operated a petroleum terminal at the mouth of the Gowanus since 1977.

Since the mid-1980s, when the federal government began maintaining detailed databases of hazardous spills, the Hess terminal has had at least 15 reported spills, leaks or instances of contaminated soil, with over 1,200 gallons of diesel and fuel oil spilled or leaked either directly into the canal or onto the land. It also occupies the site of the former Patchogue Oil Terminal, where the 1976 fire spilled millions of gallons of oil.

In early 2008 Hess settled a lawsuit brought by the state DEC alleging violations at the facility’s tanks and bulkheads, by paying $1.1 million.

Lorrie Hecker, a spokeswoman for Hess, said in an e-mail that the company is cooperating with the EPA but declined to comment further.

Bayside Fuel Oil Depot Corp., a family-owned fuel company with one active terminal on the Canal, also received an EPA letter. Up until 2005 it had operated a similar facility near the head of the Canal, selling various types of fuel oil, kerosene and diesel. There is still a potent smell of petroleum and one can see a slick sheen on the surface of the water near Sackett Street where it was located. Government records indicate that Bayside has spilled at least 300 gallons of fuel oil at its two facilities since 1990.

Reached on the phone, an unidentified Bayside representative said that they are barred from speaking about the Canal by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Today, the area along the Canal remains partially industrial, but much less so than in the past. Busy cranes can still be seen scooping scrap metal from yards onto barges. The last large-scale industry that exists here is the cement business.

Ferrara Brothers Building Materials, one of the largest concrete providers in the city, has operated at the major bend in the Canal on the west side at Hoyt Street between 4th and 5th Street since the early 1970s.

The company was one of three that the environmental organization Riverkeeper threatened to sue in September after it allegedly observed Ferrara polluting the Canal. Riverkeeper says it observed and documented the company discharging liquid cement and stone into the water.

Ferrara Brothers greatly benefitted from the building boom of the last few years. It produces half a million cubic feet of concrete annually—about half comes from the Gowanus plant—for major projects in the city, including the new Mets’ Citi Field baseball stadium and the Second Avenue Subway.

As of April, a representative from Riverkeeper said that the state was taking enforcement actions against Ferrara Brothers and 107 Sixth Street LLC and 32-2nd-J Corp., which jointly operate a parking lot on their property.

The third company Riverkeeper was pursuing, 6th Street Iron and Metal, has taken substantial steps to clean its shoreline, said Joshua Verleun, an attorney and investigator for Riverkeeper. It moved large piles of metal further away from the edge of the canal and built a concrete wall along the edge of the property. Verleun has been patrolling the Gowanus on the organization’s boat at least nine months of the year since 2005, looking for violators of environmental laws.

Ferrara Brothers has been in the unkind spotlight before. In the early ’90s, The New York Times reported it was accused of making payoffs to the Colombo crime family in exchange for favors. Calls to Ferrara Brothers were not returned.


Others involved with the Canal have connections that have not been previously disclosed before now. Some were prominent figures in the run-up to the Superfund decision.

Holloway, who had been the point man for the Bloomberg administration on the Gowanus issue over the last year, is also the son of a prominent luxury residential developer, Caswell F. Holloway, III. The younger Holloway has attended community meetings and has been heavily involved in developing the specifics of the city’s alternative clean-up plan. He is now the newly-appointed commissioner of the city DEP, but had no prior environmental experience, having previously worked at a corporate law firm before joining the mayor’s office.

The elder Holloway’s business, C.F. Holloway, III and Company, which builds fancy houses and small-scale developments outside Philadelphia, Penn., has no vested interest in property along the Canal. But critics who say Mayor Bloomberg opposes the Superfund listing simply because he wants to save private development like the Toll Brothers luxury residential project, may be suspect. Repeated requests for an interview with Holloway for this story were denied.

Owen Foote, the treasurer of the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club, a local nonprofit, had criticized the potential Superfund designation while at the same time serving as an assistant vice president with the New York City Economic Development Corporation, which has board members appointed by the mayor.

“Any and all statements made [regarding the Gowanus] have been in my personal time and not while employed by the EDC,” Foote said in an email message. “What I do for a living has no relation to my hobby,” he added.

The Gowanus Dredgers are not directly supported by the city government, but take funding and grants from private donors, including the Citizens Committee for New York City, which is supported by city government funds. Also, if Toll Brothers is able to develop a condominium project on the canal’s banks, it would build a boathouse where the Gowanus Dredgers could store its canoes. Officially, the club did not have a stance about the Superfund controversy.

Since April 2009, the city worked to avoid a Superfund listing, both publicly and behind the scenes. While developing its own clean-up plan, the city employed a high-powered Washington, D.C. lobbying firm to provide consulting and technical services. Dawson & Associates specializes in water and environmental issues and regulatory compliance.

At a June meeting between EPA and city officials, three Dawson employees—Stephen D. Luftig, Dr. Jonathan P. Deason and Lester Edelman—attended on behalf of the city. Each has extensive connections in Washington to the agencies and players that will decide if the Gowanus Canal gets listed as a Superfund site, in addition to a high-level of expertise on environmental regulation. Although the mayor’s office says the three were not involved in lobbying activities, on the company’s Web site, it says the “firm has access to leaders and opinion makers in Washington.”

Marc LaVorgna, a mayoral spokesman, said that Dawson & Associates was retained because of its substantive expertise with the Superfund process and the Water Resources Development Act. “They did not have a role in lobbying Washington officials,” he said. “City officials, including the Mayor, have made our case in Washington.” While the Superfund decision was pending, Mayor Bloomberg called EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson on at least one occasion.


In 1997, Ben Longstreth, a member of Baykeeper, an environmental group, placed a mound of oysters covered in netting in the Gowanus Canal, as part of a project to test the health of various New York waterways.

The oysters died within a week. “They were white—seemed like they had just been bleached and then it looked like a rat had clawed a hole in the net,” said Longstreth. “It seemed to be purely a toxicity issue.”

The oysters’ plight is a far cry from the days when they bloomed in the Gowanus Creek. Dutch travelers visiting the area in 1679-1680 deemed them the best in the country. “They are large and full, some of them not less than a foot long, and they grow sometimes ten, twelve and sixteen together,” Jasper Dankers and Peter Lyster marveled in their journal.

Over 300 years later, the Canal’s water and surrounding soil have been contaminated with numerous chemicals and thousands of people have lived in the immediate area surrounding the Canal.

“If somebody were to do a health survey, they would find that people who grew up in these environments all their lives and raise children in these environments have issues,” said Balan of Urban Divers. “And most people in my neighborhood, elders that I’ve met, who have come and died in my time, they’ve died of cancer.”

The city Department of Health does study cancer clusters, but doesn’t break down data specifically for the Gowanus area. The exact risks to human health are debated within the scientific community. Experts do agree that eating fish or swimming in the Canal is considered highly dangerous, but the health risks of simply living near the Canal are less clear. There has never been a comprehensive health study of the area around it.

James Corrigan, a biologist who has studied the Canal for over 30 years, stood on the Third Street Bridge looking down and yelling at some brave folks paddling a canoe. Earlier in the morning, he had been helping one of his graduate students collect samples to test water quality and thought it was important to warn those below. “If your hands were near the water you should go home and launder the clothing well and wash your hands well,” he said, leaning against the drawbridge railing. “What you’ll find in here is fecal contamination bacteria.”

Corrigan was talking about the pathogens found in floating raw sewage. It had rained the night before. Following heavy rains, the sewage overflow runs into the Canal and contact with the water can lead to staph and e.coli infections.

Additionally, Corrigan is concerned about effects of contaminants from a process known as biological amplification. Levels of toxic chemicals become more concentrated, and more toxic, as they make their way through the food chain. Not only is this a problem as it relates to eating fish from the Canal, but it is also an issue if people grow gardens nearby.

“Back in 1983 I had the soil in my garden tested, and, as a result grow only decorative plants in the ground. Many people told me I was paranoid,” wrote Christine Mackellar, a neighborhood resident for almost 30 years, in a letter to the EPA. “However, testing conducted in recent years by the people from The Earth Institute at Columbia University confirmed my worst nightmares concerning the levels of toxicity resident in this body of water and its uplands.

While Corrigan stresses the risk of eating vegetables grown on the land, Joshua Cheng, a geochemist at Brooklyn College, says the risk is greatest from working with the soil. If its contaminants can be ingested – by inhaling dust from a condo construction site or by rubbing an eye after planting gardenias – then the dirt surrounding the canal becomes highly dangerous to human health, he says.

Also, according to Cheng, hydrogen sulfide is one of the biggest risks to human health.  This is the pervasive rotten egg smell in areas of the Canal. Its primary source is human fecal matter in the water. Chronic exposure to low levels of hydrogen sulfide has been implicated in miscarriages and harm to reproductive health.  At high levels it can cause eye irritation, sore throat, cough and nausea.

Another concern is the combined effect of all of the chemicals.

“The health risks of individual compounds are well known,” said Cheng. “But the combination of many contaminants is a huge issue. I don’t think people really know what the risk is.”

While Cheng is more conservative about the health risks of living near the canal and more optimistic about the ability to clean the area, Corrigan is less so.

Given the long history of industrial contamination of the soil, he worries that pollutants are seeping into underground waterways—the land used to be a salt marsh. He argues that attempts to clean the canal will continually be thwarted if the contamination from surrounding soil is not addressed. “The surrounding soil hasn’t been adequately studied,” said Corrigan.

Beyond his concern for plants and vegetable gardens, Corrigan had a more disturbing thought.

“Let’s say everything went well,” he said of plans to develop Gowanus. “The buildings went up, the playgrounds went in, all the wonderful Venice in Brooklyn went in that they want to do. And then 10 or 15 years down the road, all of a sudden they’re getting children coming down with leukemia and all kinds of other medical problems, allergic reactions and everything else. And then they turn around and say the soil has been contaminated all along. Where are we? What went wrong?”


Of course, there are residents who dream of redevelopment along the Canal and see it as the key to the area’s future. Almost all agree that such reinvestment is key to the region. So it’s ironic that the very thing that got the canal into the most trouble – development – is the same thing that might save it.

The Bloomberg administration argued that it made sense for developers to be responsible for cleaning up the land they wished to develop.

Before the EPA decision, the administration maintained that a Superfund designation would harm development prospects along the Gowanus Canal. For the past seven years, the administration has been attempting to rezone the land around the Canal from industrial to a mix of residential and other uses.

Critics accused the city of opposing the Superfund because of its cozy relationships with developers. “The city bent over backwards to try to make developers who want to develop on the Canal happy,” said Verleun of Riverkeeper.

However, the city recently received a letter from the EPA notifying it that it will be potentially responsible for paying a portion of a Superfund cleanup. The city ran multiple facilities along the banks of the Canal, including a Department of Sanitation Incinerator on Hamilton Avenue. This alone would give the city good reason to oppose a listing. Still, stalled development appears to be the driving motivation for Superfund opposition.

A listing could have “a significant negative impact” on Gowanus neighborhood rezoning, said a survey conducted by the Bloomberg administration. The 25-block rezoning was placed on hold pending the EPA’s decision. According to the city, stigma related to Superfund site designations will be an impediment to fast and efficient development.

Toll Brothers Inc., the luxury condo builder, had publicly considered backing out of its plans unless the city’s cleanup plan moves forward. David Von Spreckelsen, a Toll spokesman, said that people would have such little contact with the sediment it wouldn’t be worth the cost to remove it. “It’s a lofty goal to take that out, but what’s the purpose?” he said. Shortly after the EPA announced its decision, Toll Brothers followed through on its threat and pulled out.

During the two years preceding the EPA announcement, Toll and other builders around the nation had backed out of development projects because the financials didn’t pencil. It was one of the worst housing markets in modern U.S. history. Yet in this case Toll Brothers representatives said that a Superfund designation was reason enough to leave.

Other projects have also been stalled. Whole Foods, the gourmet supermarket, had been developing a site just one block from the Canal, but has since suspended construction and has no immediate plans to build the store.

A mixed-use project, Gowanus Village, which was to include townhouses and loft condos, fell through a year before the Superfund controversy erupted. Africa-Israel, U.S.A., which has a controlling stake in ownership of the land, is still seeking to sell the property. When asked if the company was concerned about liability under Superfund, Andy Ashwal, a senior developer, said it was premature for him to comment.

Studies do show that there is a significant stigma associated with a Superfund listing. They also show that this stigma has created real economic impacts to surrounding property values.

Hilary Sigman, a professor who specializes in environmental economics at Rutgers University, points out that to economists, there is a difference between perceived risk from pollution and actual risk. According to Sigman, if people believe property is worth less, then it is worth less.  “To what extent you can say this is Superfund designation or actual contamination is hard to separate,” she said.

Lindsay Wilhelm, a senior project manager for the city’s Economic Development Corporation, conceded that the stigma may not be directly caused by a Superfund designation. “There is a lot of question over whether property values actually drop because of Superfund listing or if it’s just the knowledge of contamination that makes property values drop,” she said.

Enck, of the EPA, directly addressed the suggestion that development would be impeded by the Superfund listing. Pro-development and business groups had claimed that developers within 3,000 feet of the Canal would have difficulty securing private financing and obtaining loans due to the stigma caused by a listing. “Unfortunately, there is already a stigma there,” Enck said. “I reject this as a reason why development can’t move forward.”

The Gowanus Canal is in some ways the exception to the rule because it’s a densely populated area. Most Superfund sites are in solely industrial areas. Another anomaly is that with most cleanups, the choice is usually Superfund or nothing. In this case there was an alternative approach proposed by the city. No major studies have been conducted that look at the stigma or development costs related to an alternative cleanup option.

“We are not saying under the alternative plan there is not going to be any effect on real property taxes,” said Francesco Brindisi, a chief economist with the EDC, before the EPA’s decision. “There is going to be an effect, except that it’s shorter than what the effect would be under the Superfund listing.”

Therein lies the assumption made by city officials advocating for their proposal: that the city’s clean-up plan will take less time than the Superfund process.

The EDC made the same assumption when it conducted an analysis of the tax impact of a Superfund designation. While the EDC says that the actual analysis itself is confidential, officials were willing to talk about the report’s methodology.

Given the two scenarios—Superfund and the city’s alternative proposal—they relied on an assumption that the city’s plan would allow development in five years and that the Superfund cleanup would allow development in eight to 15 years.

If the Canal is not listed, they said, the planned projects along the Canal alone will generate over $500 million in tax revenue. Assuming that a Superfund designation moves forward, the EDC estimates that it will cost the city between $120 million and $189 million in lost tax revenue, depending on the length of the cleanup.

These projections came during the worst recession since the great depression. Despite the economic conditions, the Bloomberg administration reasoned that tax revenues from development would begin much sooner than if the Canal was listed.

“We’re not painting doomsday scenarios where all investment is delayed forever under Superfund designation,” Brindisi said. “Clearly there is going to be investments in the future when it’s cleaned up and the city is eventually going to get some taxes related to those investments. The city would rather have those tax revenues earlier rather than later.”


The debates about how to handle the Canal’s pollution problems actually parallel the discussion and arguments being made 100 years ago. A mere 20 years after the Canal’s completion, industrialization had already taken its toll.

The Gowanus Canal Commission, formed in 1889, in a report to the mayor, deemed the Canal detrimental to health and called for it to be permanently filled in.

In its few decades of existence, the Canal was already seen as The Brooklyn Eagle put it in 1902, “a festering pool of filth.” Close living quarters throughout the city hadn’t helped—instead, they encouraged disease. Outbreaks of smallpox, cholera, scarlet fever, dysentery, typhus, typhoid, tuberculosis, yellow fever, diptheria, and malaria plagued the city, and disproportionately affected areas like Gowanus, where there were particularly squalid living conditions.

By 1893, it was described as a disease-breeding, foul-smelling, open sewer, and a “disgrace to Brooklyn,” by The New York Times, a notable accolade for a city whose streets were becoming lined with trash, sewage, horse manure, rats, and rotting horse corpses.

Despite the commission’s report, business interests won—the canal was not closed. The city approved an alternative plan to create a flushing tunnel that would continually refresh the waterway by pushing sewage, trash and industrial waste out to sea.

In 1911, the 6,200 foot underground tunnel, equipped with a 7-foot propeller was revealed to great fanfare. The New York Times wrote: “In gala attire, all South Brooklyn took a holiday yesterday to celebrate its long-looked-for emancipation from the evil smells given forth by the murky waters of Gowanus Canal.”

A parade of decorated craft drifted through the waterway surrounded by factories bedecked with flags and cheering crowds. Nine-year-old Jeanne Haviland, who held the honor of “Miss Gowanus,” threw white lilies out into the putrid water, symbolizing its future purity.

While sewage overflows and industrial pollution continued over the next four decades, the flushing tunnel replaced the water in the canal at an astounding rate of five times a day, washing away evidence of its contamination and significantly decreasing the pungent odors of the Canal.

In the 1950s, the creation of the Gowanus Expressway signaled the end of maritime commerce for Gowanus.  In 1955, the Army Corps abandoned its periodic dredging, and six years later the flushing station broke. For decades, the layers of contaminated sediment at the bottom of the Canal and the raw sewage would fester.

In 2009, the Bloomberg administration announced plans to partially address the issue of combined sewer overflows, or CSOs, which have been an inherent infrastructure problem in the city for over 70 years. In October, Mayor Bloomberg announced that $150 million worth of work would soon begin.

Of that, $85 million will go toward enhancing the pumping station, $50 million will go toward expanding the flushing tunnel’s capacity, and $15 million would go toward dredging the 750 feet at the head of the Canal.

Early on in the clean-up debate, the city worried that this work would not be able to move forward if the Canal were to be designated a Superfund site. EPA officials quickly dispelled this notion.

The work will increase flushing rates by approximately 40 percent and will reduce the volume of sewage discharges by 34 percent. For that reason, some residents remain worried that if the sewage is only reduced by a third, then even while the Canal cleanup moves forward—regardless of the process—sewage discharges will continue to pollute the Canal. Add to that the fact that the EPA says a Superfund cleanup will focus on the contaminated sediments in the Canal—not the floating sewage and storm run-off.

Still, as the Superfund cleanup moves forward, all stakeholders will have to temper their expectations about how fast the process can move. Because of the need for a comprehensive cleanup and considering the multiple levels of government involved, the process will be inherently slow. Compromises will need to be made while keeping a long-term vision for the Gowanus and the community’s health at the forefront.