In two meetings, one of them quite heated, neighborhoods confront the half-billion dollar Gowanus Canal cleanup

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The Gowanus Canal. ()
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Last night, representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency arrived at P.S. 58 in Brooklyn to explain to locals how they planned to clean up approximately 10 feet of mucky sediment, which they described as being "like a kind of black mayonnaise," from the bottom of the Gowanus, the canal that snakes between the leafy neighborhoods of Park Slope and Carroll Gardens.

The sediment is full of harmful polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and non-aqueous phase liquid (NAPL) left behind by local industries, which would be dredged.

Well, they had explained it before in a 550-page document called a "feasibility study" released last month. But that explanation, especially with its environmental safety implications and near half-billion-dollar price-tag, needed explaining. (You can view the slide presentation here.)

According to Christos Tsiamis, the E.P.A. project manager for the canal area's superfund site, additional NAPL—the result of coal tar deposits left over from gas manufacturing plants during the canal's industrial heyday—continues to seep into the canal from deposits as far deep as 150 feet under the bed, "deeper than practical depth of renewal."

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These continuing deposits call, in the E.P.A. study, for two possible clean-up methods, both of which involve covering the floor of the canal with multiple layers of protective material.

The E.P.A. estimates that cleanup costs will range from $361 million to $456 million, mostly depending on where and how the waste is disposed of.

One possible but expensive method of the sediment disposal is the use of a waste cogeneration plant—a type of power plant that burns the sediment to create electricity with a "beneficial" use for the ash-waste product.

Local residents involved in the canal cleanup community advisory group have floated the idea of building such a plant in Brooklyn.

"I've heard much about this, the idea to start something new," Tsiamis said of the cogeneration plant. "There is a demand for green technology … Newtown creek is right on the heels of this, and there is a need for this type of industry." A further issue of great interest to the attendees was the continual discharge of waste and raw sewage into the canal, the result of an archaic sewage system and "unpermitted pipes." Currently the E.P.A. and the city are in disagreement about how to deal with the phenomenon, known as "combined sewage overflows," or C.S.O.s.

"We're gonna plug those things," said Tsiamis, eliciting some laughter from the audience. "Some of this is high-tech, and some of this is low tech."

He also mentioned that a meeting with the city has been planned for Feb. 2 to discuss the issue, since many in the community have said that cleaning the canal will be pointless if further contamination isn't prevented.

Brad Lander, a city councilman of the 39th district, was present at the meeting and fielded a direct question from a neighborhood blogger and advocate Katia Kelly.

"Can we count on you to help us take care of the C.S.O.s—to help us and give us the cleanest canal possible?" she asked the councilman.

Lander responded that he "loved the idea" of improving water quality, but that there are "big hard questions" regarding the C.S.O.s, including the many millions of dollars that "we all pay in our water bills" which would be necessary for dealing with the sewage issues.

"I'm absolutely committed to try and help the state, federal government, and city to achieve a consensus in a way that delivers a much cleaner canal," Lander said.

But the night before, it was another local environmental issue that heated up the conversation at The Carroll School, as P.S. 58 is known.

Further south along Smith Street at Huntington, where the Prospect Expressway cuts along the south end of the neighborhood, choking off Red Hook, is the National Grid site, a brownfield where developers are supposedly planning a 770-unit affordable-housing complex.

National Grid is responsible for cleanup on the site where for years they manufactured coal gas; they are working with the state's Department of Environmental Conservation on the project.

The Gowanus Canal Community Development Corporation isn't happy about the company's proposed method of measuring and containing the release of coal tar vapors during the clean-up, and so they called a meeting.

They have an alternate proposal, which is based on the research of the New Jersey-based firm Minnich and Scotto Inc.

That second name will be familiar to local residents; as the Daily News reported, the Scotto in Minnich and Scotto is Robert Scotto—a cousin of Gowanus Canal Community Development Corp. founder Buddy Scotto, who was also in attendance.

Rallying the community to come to a meeting to discuss the proposal, an email called the National Grid and D.E.C. plans for containing the vapor "inadequate and potentially hazardous." After a brief introduction, GCCDC executive director Bill Appel introduced Allen Hatheway, as an expert on coal-tar remediation, as well as Robert Scotto and Minnich, whom he described as experts in the field of monitoring air emissions and scientists holding master’s degrees in meteorology. For the 40 or so locals, the absence of any mention of the Scotto family connection was as likely to be a function of how well known the fact already is as to deemphasize it.

Hatheway described the traditional method of monitoring emissions in cleanup sites, saying that gas companies rarely disclose enough documentation about their cleanup processes. He said that National Grid's monitoring method alerts them when there is a harmful vapor level, but that it doesn't store and archive the information.

The technology proposed by Scotto and Minnich would. He then praised the New York State department of Environmental Conservation as being “a leading protector of the environment in the coal gas legacy” in the United States, if not the whole planet.

Following Hatheway, Scotto and Minnich narrated a slideshow presentation of their proposed technology, detailing how at previous M.G.P. (manufacturing gas plant) coal-tar remediation sites National Grid had erected “sprung structures,” or large containment tents, to control air emissions—mostly for toxic coal tar byproducts like benzene and naphthalene. This, they argued, adds “considerable time and cost” to the process, while their own technology, an air monitor that uses infrared beams to detect emissions, would “obviate the need for a sprung structure” and cost at least 30 percent less than the National Grid and D.E.C.’s methods.

Following the presentation Gardiner Cross, the D.E.C. engineering geologist who will oversee the remediation, stood up.

He had not in fact been directly invited to the meeting, nor had anyone from Community Board 6, which had its own environmental subcommittee meeting at the same time a few blocks away.

“I’m not going to be able to stay around here much tonight because I have a train to catch back to Albany,” said Cross, “but it’s something I wanted everyone to know is, 99 percent of the excavation of it will be done under cover, because I do not believe it can be safely done without protection.”

The D.E.C., he explained, would practically never perform a remediation in a residential neighborhood without the sprung structures, since they use an air-filtration system that prevents the chemicals from entering the open air. On-site human inspectors provide the “first line of defense” against emissions, since the smell of coal tar is “god awful,” and easily detectable well before reaching a dangerous concentration.

“I don’t mean this as an assault on the potential use of the operating monitor, but we do have a program that works, we’ve done a lot of this excavations,” he said.

More importantly, he said, even if they did use the Scotto and Minnich technology, they would still erect the sprung structure as the primary defense against any airborne contamination.

Kathy Appel, an audience member who had vigorously collected the names and email addresses of attendees as they entered the auditorium, stood up to speak.

“I live in this neighborhood and have for over thirty years and you just have to get this done so that you can catch a train?” she said. “That’s insulting. You can’t just stand there and say what you’re saying and expect us to believe you as you’re running out the door to catch a train, sir.”

“I’m on my day off,” said Cross, his voice narrowing. “I was not invited here, and they didn’t even tell me that they were holding this meeting.”

He held up a twitching left hand.

“I have an M.R.I. for a surgical scar tomorrow morning that I put off for two weeks; that’s why I have a train back to Albany. I have to be back here tomorrow for the E.P.A. meeting—a meeting scheduled with the foresight to bother inviting the D.E.C. in the first place.”

“Perhaps," said Appel. "I don’t know if I can believe that."

“Will [Scotto and Minnich] be volunteering their services to do the monitoring?” shouted one person from the back.

“What do you think?” said Appel.

“No, and so what’s your point, it’s cheaper!” responded Robert Scotto.

Commotion ensued, with some audience members yelling out that the whole meeting was a sales pitch, asking why the technology wasn’t proposed to Community Board 6 or to the Community Advisory Group that works in conjunction with the D.E.C. and will look at the Gowanus clean-up proposal in more detail next mondady.

Later on, Robert Scotto and Minnich asked Cross whether he was open to the idea of field-testing the technology on the site. It was certainly possible, said Cross, but without a research and development budget, “who is going to pay for it?”

In a last pitch, the Scotto contingent was still pushing Cross on the question of using the "smell test" to determine the presence of harmful vapors.

“What’s to say,” asked Scotto, “if the Gowanus Canal flushing tunnel overflowed, people wouldn’t mistake odors from the discharge with odors from [the National Grid site]?”

“They’re different odors,” responded Cross. “Coal tar doesn’t smell like poop.”