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How Federal Budget Cuts Will Affect the Dirtiest Waterway in Brooklyn

HOST INTRO: This week President Trump gave his first address to a joint session of Congress. He proposed cuts for multiple federal agencies, including the EPA. This will affect EPA Superfund sites like the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, one of 1300 in the country that has been deemed hazardous to human health and slated for cleanup. But with major cuts, what’s the fate of the project? Pia Peterson takes a look.

PETERSON 1: The Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn is one of the most polluted bodies of water in America. It goes by another name, too, which David McWeeney, “concerned citizen,” attempts to explain:

McWeeney: Why do the call it the Lavender Lake? It’s a nickname for the Gowanus Canal. It’s a pitiful petulant sinkhole of terrible terrible poisons.

PETERSON 2: As President Trump was giving his address on Tuesday, concerned citizens like McWeeney, community leaders, and EPA workers met in Brooklyn to discuss the future of the Gowanus. As they design a cleanup project, residential developments are being built right on the banks of the polluted canal. Construction is going on as Katia Kelly points at the water underneath the Carroll Street bridge. Oil slicks, like the kind you’d see in a rain puddle in a parking lot, are drifting by below us. They’re kind of a purplish color.

KELLY 2: Whatever is at the bottom of the canal, it just occasionally bubbles up and you get this sheen. I mean it’s just not a healthy body of water.

PETERSON 3: In the Industrial Revolution, companies and slaughterhouses used the canal as a garbage can. Since then, boat traffic, and a heavy flow of sewage also contributed to its current state. The EPA declared the Gowanus a superfund site in 2009, which means it went on a national priorities list for clean-up. Since then, Christos Tsiamis and his team have been figuring out how best to remove the toxic mud and coal tar from the bottom of the canal. Tsiamis is an engineer and the EPA’s project manager, he hopes to start dredging at the site next year. And the funding for the project should be all set. Under superfund law,

Tsiamis 2: The parties that were determined to be responsible for the pollution are obligated by law to pay for the cleanup.

PETERSON 4: In this case, the party held responsible for the pollution is National Grid. National Grid was instructed to pay $500,000,000 to make up for damage to the environment and pay for the cleanup. Tsiamis says he is confident the money will come. But it’s been eight years, and so far National Grid has only contributed five percent of what it owes for the cleanup. And in the meantime, the EPA is footing that bill.

TSIAMIS 4: So at this point we rely on funding from EPA’s budget to do that work. Now if that funding does not become available, and actually we are in urgent need as we are speaking right now of funding, we will not be able to maintain the degree of oversight on the cleanup that we have right now. And that will result in considerable delays to the project.

PETERSON 6: Delays could mean years of residents like Kelly living next to a toxic site with no cleanup plan. Andy Bicking is with the non-profit Scenic Hudson, an environmental advocacy group. He’s concerned about the effect of the proposed cuts to the EPA, like the one that would see 20 percent of the EPA’s staff gone, almost 4,000 jobs.

BICKING 1: So this would really be a significant reduction in the ability of the professional staff to provide the technical expertise, and do the monitoring, and develop the relationships to keep our air clean and our water clean.

PETERSON 7: And the effects go far beyond just the Gowanus.

BICKING 2: For example, within NY State the dept of environmental conservation’s division of water relies in many cases on federal funding to match state funding to be able to do the work that they do to make sure that the water is clean and safe for drinking

PETERSON 8: Katia Kelly wants her kids and grandkids to grow up and be able to safely enjoy the area. But she says that isn’t likely if the government and responsible parties doesn’t take responsibility.

KELLY 3: Let’s face it, if the EPA doesn’t have the manpower, if it doesn’t have the resources, and certainly does not have the will of the Washington administration to do their work, it can’t be good for the Gowanus.

PETERSON 9: The EPA is seeking funding and reimbursement from National Grid, but National Grid is trying to pass the bill onto taxpayers. In December of last year, New York’s Public Service Commission voted to allow the utility company to raise taxes on city residents to pay for the cleanup, almost $10 per month, as well as a 2% surcharge starting next year. It’s not just the Gowanus. Superfund sites around the country are in similar positions as they wait to see if funding comes through. In the meantime neighborhood residents around the country are waiting.

Pia Peterson, Columbia Radio News


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