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Gowanus Canal CAG Meeting
Tuesday, May 23, 2017
Mary Star of the Sea Senior Apartments, 41 1st Street


Doug Sarno opened the meeting at 6:40.

The April meeting summary was approved with no revisions.

MS 38 7th grade students presented their projects for the Gowanus Canal Thomas Greene Park resiliency project.

Project Updates (Christos Tsiamis, EPA Project Manager)

The first item was regarding the Fulton cutoff wall and activities related to building the overflow tanks and the cleanup of Thomas Greene Park.

  • National Grid has been issued an order and will be working under EPA’s oversight to build the Fulton cutoff wall. The state decision regarding Thomas Greene Park included some cleanup at the park at an appropriate time and the construction of a cutoff wall by the Canal to stop the tar from flowing into the Canal.
  • The EPA’s ROD for cleaning up the Canal had a provision whereby some work was being conducted by the state at the former MGP plants (Public Place, Fulton, Metropolitan). The ROD stated that under certain circumstances, EPA might have to assume the lead for that work, and that’s what’s happened now. One of named circumstances was a matter of coordination. What changed from the time the state issued the ROD and now? A subsequent agreement between EPA and the City about the placement of the retention tanks. In that consent agreement, it was agreed that the City would have the choice of building the tank right next to the Canal or at Thomas Greene Park. The City’s preferred site was the head of Canal but that’s private property and there are complications. EPA put time limit on that decision in order to ensure that the cleanup can move forward and required the City to prepare two parallel designs. Right now, the City is moving under the premise that they’ll be able to acquire or take by eminent domain the location next to the Canal. There is certain work required to build the tank, including environmental investigation and construction, and the City is responsible for these things.
  • In the state decision, National Grid is obligated to build the wall and we will have two different entities working on this: National Grid will work under state supervision and the City will work under EPA supervision for installing the tanks. To improve coordination, the state and EPA agreed it would be best for EPA to take the lead, which is the rationale for the National Grid order. In two weeks, EPA will meet with National Grid to discuss the specifics of building the wall and then will move on and brief the CAG.

Questions and Answers

CAG Member: In terms of your work overseeing this, can you go through how that’s funded and whether everything’s fine?
EPA: There’s nothing new to report. We have some money and that will take us through six months.. We hope to have some kind of settlement that will bring us through 2019. The bulk of the work is being paid for by the PRPs – the only question is how much money we will have to oversee their work.

CAG Member: It makes a lot of sense to have EPA as the lead for Fulton – do you anticipate the same type of order for the two other sites? And the order is only for the wall, not the park?
EPA: No. Here it’s only because the work is being done by two entities; in the park it’s just National Grid. There’s a lot of work that has to be done related to the park and Canal-side properties, all tied to the City’s property acquisitions. We have a few years before that needs to be completed for design and implementation. There’s also some uncertainty regarding which site that will be. The only thing on the critical path was the wall for design and dredging. We’re now going to be discussing with the City the work we did last year for the temporary replacement of the park (next 2-4 months). We expect a settlement and timeframe within three years, so that the City can acquire properties for cleanup. We’ll be working with the community on the selection and design of new park site.

CAG Member: There are materials already on 3rd Avenue and DeGraw. Is that part of the high-level storm sewer? You mentioned the design for the temporary park – is that a forthcoming order? Is the wall going to be on the Canal side or street side? What impacts do you anticipate?
EPA: Yes, it has nothing to do with us. There is a forthcoming order. Our preference is to do the majority of the work by the Canalside, though we can’t do all of it there. In general, the bulkhead work going on to date has not had noticeable impacts on the community (3rd St bulkhead going in – all being done from the property, same from 6th Street a couple of months ago).

CAG Member: Can you describe the wall and how long it will take to build?
EPA: No, it is too early to describe it now. EPA knows what we’re looking for and we’re going to have a scoping meeting. It’s only fair to discuss the details after, including the schedule.

CAG Member: You mentioned the Canal side – does that mean you’ll have to get dredging barges up there immediately? The soil level is so high.
EPA: Yes, we will. Also, I want to say since we have children in the room that the Canal is not swimmable, due to the high level of chemicals.

CAG Member: About the timeline – when will you get to remove the contamination from Thomas Greene Park?
EPA: We’ve been discussing the order for the cleanup of the park. The city’s acquisition date is April 2020. In advance of that date, we’ll know whether they’ll meet that date or not. We plan to identify six months or so in advance which cleanup will take place at the Park. We will start building the temporary park and in 2020 either the tank or non-tank cleanup will go in there.

CAG Member: Regardless of which site is selected, is responsibility for building the temporary park National Grid’s?
EPA: National Grid will design, provide, and construct the temporary pool. Then because the City is in charge of operating pools, we expect that they will operate it and National Grid will design a replacement permanent pool – we’re requiring them to design something to replace the existing function. We expect the city will come in and say we want something more sophisticated and the two of them will collaborate. We require National Grid to replace the pool but the city may take over actual construction. We’ll decide which one of them we want to do the contracting for a seamless transition. Let’s discuss after we sign the order (we’ve been going around and looking at sites).

CAG Member: Can you give us a general sense of distinction between a bulkhead and this wall?
EPA: The difference is, the purpose of a bulkhead is to provide structural support when we dredge the Canal. The function of this wall is to stop the liquid tar chemicals from moving into the Canal.

CAG Member: It sounds like it’s not clear between the two parties who’s going to build the temporary replacement pool. Based on the fact that the wall is supposed to prevent any more tar from getting into the Canal, what’s the timeline of wall being built versus the cleanup in the park?
EPA: The way we work is we focus on a few projects at a time. Although we know in general terms, we’ll focus on it once the agreement is in order. National Grid is going to be in charge of the pool as if it were the cake and the city is in charge of the icing. The wall will be built before the park cleanup. We’re talking about 2020 for the park, but the wall will be built well before then.

CAG Member: I assume there will be signage available around entire property indicating what’s being done and the timeline. Who will be responsible for that?
EPA: We’ll talk about it when we get there. If we’re responsible, we’ll direct National Grid to put up signage.

CAG Member: Do you anticipate any technical problems with the wall? My biggest question would be about keeping the chemicals from entering the Canal.
EPA: Not really, but we’re always prepared for the unexpected in the Canal. That’s why we’re going to make sure that this is a wall that actually does what is required. In conjunction with the solidification of the material on the bottom of the canal and the capping, it will prevent the liquid tar from coming up in the water.

CAG Member: Will you be remediating the tar on the other (garden) side? Will it be similar to the Canal side wall?
EPA: That was not in the ROD for Fulton, which only had the wall on one side and the cleanup of the park. On the other side, there’s the possibility of a PRP group which has to replace the bulkheads and, where there is above ground contamination, they’ll have to seal the bulkhead. It may be similar; both are designed to keep tar from coming into the Canal.

CAG Member: Will we have more info to inform the DEP comments deadline of June 16?
EPA: No.

The second Item is regarding overall cleanup schedule.

  • I sounded a warning last time about the schedule. EPA has decided that the PRP group does not satisfy our views on how to proceed in an efficient, smart, safe and quick manner. I am reiterating that the cleanup won’t happen by 2022. With the schedules we’ve received, it could be prolonged toward the end of the decade. We’ll do everything possible to move that process forward. One way for us to enforce the schedule is to issue directives. The order in place says the PRP group has to take comments by EPA on whatever approach they have and address them. If they are not addressed to EPA’s satisfaction, the PRPs can become a non-compliant party.
  • The order is written to include one round of comments and one round of responses. We’ve had several rounds of responses and EPA has been patient. Last week, starting with the 4th Street Basin, EPA sent the PRP group a directive; we gave them a new approach and dates, and asked them to comply. They wanted to hire a general contractor, and we told them to break it down to prioritize the bulkhead work. What I received – a response saying they don’t agree with EPA – was not to our satisfaction. EPA asked for an immediate response and told the PRP group that they’ve been put on notice for financial repercussions. We won’t impose penalties now but once we finish the design and move on to next phase of construction.
  • There are other issues of great concern to the community. In the last meeting we talked about Natural Resource Damages. Ken Finkelstein mentioned there could be a settlement that would lead to ecological work in the Canal. This was likely to happen at a time when EPA was signing the next order, for dredging. The more we prolong the design, the longer it will take for us to begin that discussion and start talking about ecological restoration. Lots of things have been affected by the slow pace of the schedule. We’ve looked at all the data provided by the PRPs and we really don’t agree with their approach and pace. Not everyone likes that the Canal is changing as all the redevelopment occurs, but if you want to know how long it takes to actually do something in terms of designing and implementing it – you can see how long it takes to do things to EPA specifications if you’re a developer. Hundreds of millions of dollars of work has already been done, sites have been cleaned up along the Canal, and people are living there. We’ve given the PRP group notice by email. From now on, there’s going be one directive after another for the work we’ve planned for them. I hope to report that we’ve reached agreement in the next meeting.

Questions and Answers

CAG Member: Do you think there’s anything other than financial reasons for the stoppage? Do the City and the State have a stake?
EPA: It might be the makeup of the team – I don’t know who really leads it. We used to deal only with National Grid and then this group was formed consisting of five or six different companies.

CAG Member: At the last meeting you said your leverage is somewhat limited – how much can putting them under order after order speed up the process?
EPA: We don’t want to spend several years in court with them fighting about penalties. We’ve told them in the interim we’re going to start penalties but won’t start collecting them until the next phase. This is the only time when the PRPs can get a concession from the government. If they’re not in compliance, there will be no settlement compromises – we’ll order them to do it and proceed to the next phase. They owe us interest on unpaid money since 2013 (15 million dollars). We have a list of six actions they have to do; when they’re in noncompliance, we will issue directives for work within a certain timeframe.

CAG Member: There were a lot of concerns expressed by PRPs in other forums. Not having the CSO tank to stop recontamination made them reluctant to proceed. Is that the reason for noncompliance? There is some news out of DC, an internal directive that any regional office that deals with Superfund decisions that require approval from headquarters.
EPA: No, everyone understands the Canal has to be cleaned up before tanks are built. The directive only applies to new RODs and the Gowanus ROD has already been approved.

CAG Member: We’ve been discussing how we as a community can put pressure on the PRPs. If the work is not moving forward, why are we paying a rate increase that was instituted by the Public Service Commission with a timeframe in mind?
EPA: We’re concentrating on avoiding unnecessary costs by National Grid that will delay cleanup. We’ve had a number of instances with the PRP group where we’ve had to tell them not to do things – we’re not in a position to recommend how to dissect this.

CAG Member:Are the meetings with the PRPs public? Can we attend them to understand the dynamic?
EPA: No, they’re not public. We’re telling you about this because you have to know. We had a meeting with National Grid yesterday and had Natalie come on behalf of the community. She is in a position to answer your questions, though not in this discussion. We came out of the last meeting and said we won’t have to report to the CAG that this was an uncooperative meeting. We are 6 to 8 months from starting the pilot dredging and all the documents are subject to FOIA. If we get to a point where the CAG is interested in documentation about a particular loggerhead, you can submit a FOIA request. We said we’re going to have adaptive management; we broke down the study area into 3 areas (top, middle, and bottom of Canal). We started doing studies for the new technologies. Usually when we go to design, we turn it over to PRPs and we oversee the design. I wanted to make sure that we have some control over the design, specifically the portion with ISS – and we finished all that by summer 2015. What we’re asking the PRPs to do is what we’ve done already – step by step – instead of waiting to do everything together in massive way. Everyone brings this site up as model site for having gotten to its current state in such short time, so those techniques proved to be workable.

CAG Member: Do we assume all PRPs are acting in concert with no dissent? Are there any PRP representatives in the room now?
EPA: We get one response, and we don’t get dissenters. No one is present tonight.


Update on Gowanus Canal Public Health Assessment
Scarlett McLaughlin (new Project Manager for the site)

Our role as the health department is to work with EPA, DEC and ATSDR to evaluate what site-related contaminants people could come into contact with through ingestion, inhalation or by dermal contact. Based on the public health assessment, DOH and ATSDR have concluded that there are physical, biological and chemical hazards for swimmers in the Gowanus Canal.

We’ve reached four main conclusions regarding people who live near, swim and recreate (boating, fishing, wading) in the Canal:

  • Conclusion 1 (swimming): exposure to chemicals in the surface water and sediments is a potential health concern for swimmers and others. People can accidentally drink some of the water, which contains a slew of contaminants (PCBs, VOCs, metals, biological organisms, parasites, viruses). There is also a possibility of increased risk associated with coming into contact with the water.
  • Conclusion 2 (boating): People can accidentally touch the water but contact is not really expected so there is no increased health risk associated with boating.
  • Conclusion 3 (living): A remedial investigation with air quality sampling was conducted and found no increased risk associated with living by the Canal.
  • Conclusion 4 (fishing): A new fishing advisory has been issued for 2017. if people don’t follow DOH’s fish consumption advisories, and eat more fish and crabs from the Gowanus Canal than recommended in the advisory, their risk for adverse health effects will increase and their health could be harmed
    • women under 50 and children under 15 should not eat fish from the Canal
    • men above 15 could eat 1 to 4 meals a month

Additional information was collected from the Canal but it was insufficient to change the advisory.

Questions and Answers

CAG Member: Have any of your agents gone out and actually found any fish? How often is the water tested?
EPA: At beginning of our investigation, we did collect the fish and we passed the information on to DOH.
DOH: We don’t do the sampling, we just do the assessment based on data other agencies have collected.

CAG Member: The air quality assessment was done at a particular time of year, and at other times the air is horrendous. Riverkeeper has shown that during the summer the coal tar is bubbling up all over the place and if you’re there for even 20 minutes, you get a headache. I also have a number of neighbors whose family members have died of emphysema or cancers. I think you should qualify that in saying it’s OK to inhale it at certain times because it’s never been evaluated at other times when we in the community feel it’s dangerous. They’ve also shown that exposure to the PAHs is tied to learning disabilities, so they are harmful. The CAG issued you a letter about three years ago; we looked at your study, we asked questions and we haven’t gotten a response. We’d appreciate if you could look at that study and respond to the community on that letter.
DOH: That’s a very good point. But we come into contact with chemicals all the time, which may cause one person a headache but not another. If you’re referring to a letter from April 20, 2017 on the draft public health assessment, we responded to this in the responsiveness summary in the Public Health Assessment (page 56), where responses are summarized and responses provided. The PHA is available on ATSDR’s website.

CAG Member: The problem with eating fish is not dependent only on the water quality, but also sediment quality. Fishing advisories for NYC limit ingestion of fish around all of our rivers. When will DOH put up signage for fishing advisories in the languages of the community all around?
DOH: The sediment has a huge impact on the fish and benthic organisms – a lot of contaminants can bioaccumulate. With a lot of these sites, even after cleanup and removal of sediments, it takes a certain amount of time for ecosystems to redevelop and fish to get cleaner. The most restrictive advisory will extend to all the places the fish can swim to. In the PHA, DOH recommended that the signs be posted and one of the ways that information is disseminated is when people get a fishing license, which comes with a hard copy advisory.

CAG Member: Natalie, are there any things EPA is doing at Newtown Creek that might inform this?
EPA: The Newtown Creek CAG has worked with EPA to develop and approve signage and places where it might be posted around the Creek.

CAG Member: One of our main comments on the PHA was that we were concerned about sediment so we shouldn’t allow men of 20 to eat crabs from the Gowanus Canal. EPA has data that EPA that sediment quality in the harbor is improving in some areas and not others. The answer in all the responses to comments was “if new information becomes available, this advisory will be reassessed.” Are you going out there and sampling more crabs from the Gowanus Canal to protect the community? We were told that DOH would not do more science in Newtown Creek but stay abreast of EPA studies, which is why we felt it’s important to place warning signs. What I’m looking for is “don’t fish there” and I’ve never heard DOH say that.
DOH: First and foremost, we don’t collect samples so we have to review what’s available. Based on the information we had from EPA and ATSDR, there was no change. What we’re looking for is increased risk, which doesn’t mean there’s no potential for effects. Part of it is that we’re not a regulatory body – we can’t ban people from fishing or recreating in the Canal.

CAG Member: The question is why are your recommendations the same in places where there is toxic sediment as where there isn’t.
DOH: When the assessment was conducted, we didn’t have enough information to change that advisory; there wasn’t a sufficiently high level of toxicity.
EPA: We’ve said before, they do qualitative assessment and they did it based on our data. That’s why their advisory is broad. We did a quantitative assessment and what we said was there were bioaccumulations of PCBs and PAHs, so you do have information.

CAG Member: One of the concerns people tell me is about the handling of the fish, such as pulling up from the mud and transfer of contaminants. Did you guys test that in the investigation, sediments on the outside of critters not just fish tissue?
EPA: We do have advisories on our website and a guide people can follow with regard to exposure.


CAG plans for comments on the Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) Draft Scoping Document

The CAG discussed the potential for having comments produce in time for the June 16 deadline. The difference between a CAG response and individual comments is that a CAG response carries much more weight. Getting 5000 comments that all check the same box is less effective than a single coordinated, thoughtful response from the community. However, committee work is required before a resolution can be successful at the CAG meeting.


Committee Reports


Did not meet


Working on communication plan and will try to finish by the first Tuesday in June.

Land Use/Archaeology

Archaeology discussed the historic building near the tank site, which is covered by the scoping. The committee sent a letter and will share it with the CAG. At least 20 people have sent an email or letter to DEP regarding the Gowanus Station building.

Water Quality/Technical

Water Quality/Technical discussed the EPA schedule shift at their meeting. It was suggested we invite PRPs to meet with us and continue the discussion. There’s concern about rating fees covering cleanup that’s not happening for few more years. We want to put up PRP names on the CAG website so people know who they are. Gowanus Dredgers are doing water quality testing once a week at two sites; DEP is doing testing at three sites.


Outreach met to discuss the Town Hall with Nydia Velazquez and the EPA – we’re pushing into the fall. We’re wondering if EPA can do a newsletter at some point, a general one pager on the current status and what to expect in coming months. The committee wants to inform the community without interpreting EPA’s words. [EPA is willing to disseminate periodic updates.]

Discussed the idea of potentially combining Outreach and Facilitation committees, since all people who attend Outreach committee meetings are Facilitation team members.

Other Business

There was a combined Waterfront Alliance and CAG table at the Gowanus Expo. Thank you and congratulations to the Gowanus Canal Conservancy for organizing a great event.


CAG Members Present

Jerry Armer
Sabine Aronowsky
Ken Baer (Sierra Club alternate for Diane Buxbaum)
Beverly Corbin
Eymund Diegel
Sean Dixon
Marlene Donnelly
Louis Kleinman
Hildegaard Link
Linda Mariano
Eric McClure
John McGettrick
Andrea Parker
Peter Reich
Triada Samaras
Buddy Scotto
Brad Vogel

EPA, Staff and Presenters

Doug Sarno, CAG Facilitator
Christos Tsiamis, EPA
Natalie Loney, EPA
Brina Carr, EPA
Scarlett McLaughlin, NYS DOH
Leah Graziano, ATSDR

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