Friday, May 2, 2008

Public Place: High Rise or High Risk?

Photographs by David Giambusso. Music by John Delore.

Gowanus development promises affordable housing, but at what cost to public health?

By David Giambusso

Brooklyn, NY, May2
--On the morning shuttle from LaGuardia to Dulles, Buddy Scotto suddenly found himself in a cold sweat. “My father was right--I never should have gotten involved in this stuff,” he thought. Sitting next to him was the new pastor at St. Mary’s on Court Street and he had just put the fear of God into his companion.

“Scotto, if you’ve got me on a wild goose chase, the whole neighborhood’s gonna hear about it,” said the young priest. Scotto was convinced now that it was all a hoax: the call from the Vice President, the meeting at the White House, and the money for the sewage plant.

“Between the gate of the White House and getting inside the Oval Office, I honestly don’t remember a thing,” said Scotto. By the time he was on the shuttle back to New York though, he had a $458 million guarantee to build the Red Hook Sewage Treatment Plant. “All I had to do was go to a place called Kansas City, Missouri and vote for Gerald Ford,” Scotto said.

For the first time in 200 years, the Gowanus Canal was going to start getting cleaned up. Since then, Scotto has spent the better part of his life making deals and cajoling politicians to dredge the Gowanus and make it livable. As he approaches his 80th birthday, his dream seems to be on the verge of fruition. Now his greatest obstacle lies 120 feet below ground.

The Gowanus Canal is perhaps one of the most polluted waterways in the United States. From the onset of the industrial revolution it has fallen victim to the most damaging and pervasive ecological abuses of the modern age. Independent scientific studies estimate that in certain sites, such as the soon-to-be-developed Public Place, carcinogenic toxins are embedded deep into the soil and groundwater, some plumes extending 100 feet below ground.

While most stakeholders agree there must be remediation and a drive to refashion the canal, there is deep disagreement about how that remediation, or cleanup is executed. The state and city, in partnership with local developers, plan to have housing, commercial space, and park land ready for habitation within three to four years. Others argue that such haste will have grave consequences.

The Politics of Pollution

Scotto was a lifelong Democrat. In the late sixties he helped found the Independent Neighborhood Democrats in Carroll Gardens. He got involved to help the neighborhood, but soon found himself getting too embroiled in local politics. His friends were pushing him to run for Congress. His father warned him not to get involved and he thought he could put a stop to it by registering as a Republican. When he told the boys at IND they were indignant. “You’re staying in this club even if you are a goddamn Republican!” Scotto recalls them saying.

While Scotto dodged the bullet of a Congressional run, soon enough the local Republicans started coming around and asking him to be a delegate at the Republican National Convention in 1976. They convinced him to run on the promise that his alternate could go if he was elected. Sure enough, he was voted in by a healthy margin. As planned, he told his alternate to head to Kansas City and washed his hands of the whole affair.

The phone rang one day and an operator on the other end said, “Salvatore Scotto, This is the White House. I have the Vice President for you.” Scotto was taken aback but tried to compose himself. Nelson Rockefeller was asking why Scotto wasn’t giving his full-throated support to President Ford. The whole New York delegation was rumored to be supporting Ronald Reagan and even though Rockefeller wasn’t running, it was an embarrassment for the former New York governor.

Scotto was close to admitting that he wasn’t really a Republican when he recognized his chance. He began reciting a laundry list of problems facing his neighborhood. Chief among them were the putrid conditions at the Gowanus Canal.

For over a century the Gowanus has acted as an industrial and residential sewer, suffering the runoff of gas plants, tanneries, machine shops, and factories as well as 14 sewage outlets. The waterway, which connects Upper New York Bay to the neighborhoods of Red Hook, South Brooklyn, and Park Slope, runs along a flood basin of toxicity. Several days after his meeting at the White House, Scotto would return with funding to start the Red Hook Sewage Treatment plant.

A year later, Scotto secured several million more to re-activate the flushing tunnel in the Gowanus after it had been shut down by area manufacturers who found it inconvenient for barge transportation. As part of that deal, he had won over a half a million in seed money for the Gowanus Canal Community Development Corporation (GCCDC), a group of local interests dedicated to cleaning up the canal, developing affordable housing, and ridding the basin of the toxic polluters responsible for decades of pollution.

With plans for affordable housing, commercial units, and green spaces currently backed by the city, and with remediation underway at sites all along the canal, it would seem Scotto’s lifelong dream is finally coming true. Yet to some in the neighborhoods and in the scientific community here, there is a dark underbelly to this so-called progress.

While it has been thirty years since cleanup began on the Gowanus, many feel it has been largely insufficient and in order to make the area safe again, it will take a much bigger commitment on the part of the city and state. In the meantime, some say the consequences of building over this deeply embedded toxicity may be dire to current and future residents.

Trouble Below

“The level of contamination at Public Place Site seems very extensive,” said Patricia Culligan, professor of Civil Engineering at Columbia University and co-author of “Eco-Gowanus: Urban Remediation by Design.” The book, a project of professors and graduate students at Columbia University was put together with the help of community members such as Friends and Residents of Greater Gowanus (FROGG) and Brooklyn Community Board Six.

Public Place, an 11 acre, state-owned parcel was formerly the site of a manufactured gas plant or MGP. It was seized by the state after being condemned for toxicity and is now part of the Brownfield Cleanup Program, a state initiative enacted in 2003 to make contaminated areas more viable for redevelopment.

The program offers tax breaks to development companies that are willing to take on the cost of remediation and build new housing on lands once thought to be uninhabitable. State taxpayers essentially foot the bill for development discounts in exchange for the promise of safe remediation.

The state has turned Public Place over to the Hudson Companies in partnership with Scotto’s GCCDC who recently won the bid to develop 774 units of mixed-income housing, commercial space, and community-group space on the site.

Unlike other brownfields, the cost of cleanup is being incurred largely by National Grid, a private international energy company that recently purchased Keyspan. Keyspan is the inheritor of the Brooklyn Union Gas Company, who owned the original MGP and is responsible for much of the site’s toxicity. According to a Volunteer Agreement signed by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and Keyspan, once Keyspan has met certain cleanup obligations on the site, it is free from any liability for future incidents that may arise due to contamination.

According to Marlene Donnelly, a representative of FROGG, Hudson Companies will still receive nearly 25 percent of its development costs back in tax rebates, despite not spending any money on remediation. Hudson Companies representative Alan Bell was recently quoted in the Brooklyn Paper saying, “We tend to shy away from sites that have been contaminated in some severe way” but adding that “Public Place has a long history and the city is really committed to getting this cleaned up.”

Community members and scientists close to the project are questioning the level of that commitment. Ludger Balan heads the Urban Divers Estuary Conservancy, a group that provides conservation support, environmental stewardship and public environmental education programs on the Gowanus Canal.

According to Balan, the extent of cleanup currently proposed, falls far short of what is necessary for public health. “Any development plan that does not consider a clean-up of the Gowanus Canal first is a ploy and marketing scheme driven by a city highly dependent on real estate sales,” says Balan. He and other scientists maintain that the Gowanus needs to be completely dredged and the surrounding wetlands restored before anyone can conceive of living along the canal.

The city and state have said the site will be livable in four to six years, but remediation experts don’t see how that is possible. According to data provided by the Urban Divers, there are more than 12 points where raw, untreated sewage is discharged into the Canal after every rainfall, translating into millions of gallons of combined sewage overflow or CSO. This contributes to high levels of pathogens--disease-causing bacteria--in the Gowanus Canal. Says Balan, “The entire uplands of the Gowanus Canal is severely contaminated. Dilapidated bulkheads throughout the Gowanus Canal continuously contribute to the migration of dioxins to and from land and water and vice versa.”

These assertions are consistent with the findings of Culligan and her team, who have studied the toxicity of MGP sites. They estimate that chemical deposits extend roughly 120 feet beneath the surface and could seep out into the canal as well as escape in plumes of noxious vapors. The nature of these deposits varies as toxins from other sites have seeped into the groundwater as well.

According to a recent study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, some of the more dangerous elements at Public Place site are Benzene, Xylene (BTEX), and Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH’s) some of which are known to cause lung, stomach, and skin cancer as well as leukemia. Another older survey found these elements present in the groundwater at Public Place at levels thousands of times higher than the Environmental Protection Agency has deemed safe for drinking water.

While none of the groundwater at Gowanus will be used for drinking, there are other ways in which these toxins can cause harm. “There has to be a pathway that allows you to come into contact with the contamination, and you can inhale airborne vapors so that’s one pathway.” Another pathway is skin contact should the elements appear in the park spaces, basement floods, or the canal itself. According to the Columbia study, “Any dose of Benzene can lead to illness.”

As Balan points out, exposure to these elements is not what most people likely bargain for in buying or renting a new home. “Would you want barges and trucks carting stinky and heavily contaminated sediment passing beneath your million dollar condo's window and front door?” asks Balan, saying also, “As a consequence, average citizens rich and poor [are] heavily and consistently lured to pay highest value to live on contaminated land, contaminated water and bad air quality, on a high risk flood zone waterfront. A small minority of developers get rich and thousands of families are left to hold a dirty bag, with a high mortgage and immense debts.”

Cleanup or ‘remediation’ of the site would involve decades of constant soil and water cleansing according to “Eco Gowanus”, the type that is not often politically or financially feasible, especially in a faltering economy. “Historically the remediation of these brownfield sites has not been as thorough as the remediation that we’re proposing here,” Culligan says.

The State’s Response

Yet plans to cleanup Public Place and build residential and commercial housing proceed unabated. Gardiner Cross, an engineer with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation told Community Board 6 in January that, “It would be impossible to dig out the contaminants in their entirety,” but that “The cleanup will be sufficient to support virtually any development.”

Amen Omorugbe is a project manager for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), and is currently overseeing cleanup at the Public Place site. While National Grid is saddled with all of the cleanup responsibilities, the work is carried out by private contractors such as GEI Consultants, who are paid by National Grid and overseen by DEC.

According to studies conducted by the DEC, the contamination at Public Place is consistent with that of other MGP sites in that there are high levels of BTEX and PAH’s as mentioned in “Eco-Gowanus”.

Omorugbe concedes that these contaminants are well below grade (or surface level), some as deep as 125 ft. “We recognize that you can’t treat that,” says Omorugbe. Instead, current plans call for removing roughly ten feet of topsoil, shipping it out on trucks to sites out of state where it will be treated. New soil will be carted in and laid over a barrier that is designed to prevent contaminants from seeping up into the new dirt. A 70 ft barrier will also be vertically introduced around the site barriers in an attempt to stop surrounding contaminants from seeping through.

Omorugbe was uncertain where the soil will be shipped, but believes it will be sent to processing plants in New Jersey or Pennsylvania. He was also unable to provide details of the exact decontamination process for the soil or the trucks that will be transporting it, raising questions of the public health risks to the communities where the toxic fill will be dumped.

This is similar to a “cap and pave” strategy used just a few feet down the canal where a new Lowe’s mega-store was built. Culligan and others feel this method of remediation limits the use of the land.

“The cap and pave strategy is basically turning brownfields into car parking lots. It was locking the contamination in,” says Culligan. The method also calls for constant monitoring of the site or evidence of leaking toxins. Culligan worried that this was not occurring, “We were somewhat concerned when we spoke to the stake holders that they weren’t aware of what monitoring was going on at that site.”

The concern of scientists and engineers not on the state payroll is that the underground toxins are far too volatile to be simply covered up with a layer of concrete. Cleansing 10 feet of soil does little to address the deep pools of BTEX, Coal Tar and sludge, that have seeped into the pools of ground water over a hundred feet below.

Culligan and the team at Columbia propose a permanent revolution of sorts in the way the Gowanus Canal is being treated. "Eco-Gowanus" proposes several bold ideas for addressing the contamination, all of them centered around long term remediation. While residential housing and cultural areas remain part of the drive, the Columbia team would also like to see instituted a new industry of decontamination, renewal, and education.

"The message that we’re trying to give is that the land has greater potential if we spend more time remediating it," said Culligan, "The remediation itself uncovers an urban archeology."

What The Future Holds

As illustrated in “Eco-Gowanus,” these toxins form plumes or pools that are well below the surface of the site as well as the bottom of the canal. If un-addressed they will continually threaten to escape into the water itself, the surrounding soil or into the air in the form of noxious clouds.

Moreover, even if Public Place was fully cleansed, it would still not address the surrounding sites that are equally volatile. “I think what the community deserves is a full understanding of the contamination that exists not just at this site but at neighboring sites,” said Culligan, “Just cleaning up site by site makes no sense--from an engineering perspective or an economic perspective--because the contamination doesn’t care about site boundaries.”

Community Board meetings are marked with discord. Many stakeholders as well as area politicians find themselves conflicted over the benefits of Gowanus development. Scotto and others in the GCCDC have been fighting for a renewed interest in the Gowanus for decades and see this as a golden opportunity. Others such as Community Board 6 members, FROGG, and The Urban Divers are deeply reticent. While the current cleanup of Public Place is the responsibility of National Grid, once the minimal requirements of the DEC are met, National Grid has no further liability. Future lawsuits will be paid out by New York State taxpayers.

Balan, in particular, foresees ominous consequences and said, “Until solutions for remediation of these issues take a serious lead in the dialogue of developing the Gowanus Canal, I fear the drive of the real estate interest will lead us to see another Love Canal. It appears that this is currently in the making.”

David Giambusso is a master's candidate in NYU's Reporting the Nation program and has worked as a freelance journalist for several years, covering local news in New York City and Westchester. He currently splits his time between journalism and music, performing and recording with the rock and roll sensation, Ann Courtney & The Late Bloomers. He would like to thank Andrew Garib for his extraordinary intellect, without which none of this would be possible.

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