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Gowanus Canal CAG Meeting
Tuesday, May 22, 2018
Mary Star of the Sea Senior Apartments, 41 1st Street


Doug Sarno opened the meeting at 6:40.

The March meeting summary was approved with no revisions.

The April meeting summary was approved with no revisions.

Project Updates

Christos Tsiamis, Remedial Project Manager for EPA, presented the updates.

The visioning process must be a cooperative process. The CAG Resolution was also addressed to EPA – it is a community process. We think it should be an open meeting. EPA met with Council Member Levin and Ben Solotaire yesterday and made it clear that what was discussed was not approved layouts by EPA or the City. There are imperfections, and we hope that the broader community, in coordination with the CAG, will engage so that the community is assured EPA and the City are on the same page. The City’s Department of Environmental Protection said that DEP and EPA were not on the same page at that meeting.

Without most of you noticing, the bulk of sediment in the 4th Street Turning Basin has been removed. 10,000 cubic yards of sediment – averaging 600-700 cubic yards a day. We are very pleased with that. There is still some sediment at the corners and edges that require specialized equipment. A couple spots are in the native sediment. Under the general plan, EPA will stabilize these parts. Because of the smaller size of the pilot area, EPA has decided to excavate, so there’s going to be a depression and then stable material in the inside.

Following the specialized operations, they will lay the cap. Now they’re down 10-12 feet at the bottom. We are surprised how much debris was moved. Lots of plastic, wood, big rocks, tires, some items that were separated as potential archaeological elements.  A number of bricks with stamps, roll bearing, a port-hole from a ship (but no ship), a metal wheel from a car, odd metal parts. A fairly contemporary heat exchanger. There was a scrapyard right next to this location.

The Potentially Responsible Parties (PRPs) have been asked to stage the oversized items that cannot be shipped to New Jersey. EPA is willing to do a visit in the next week or so with the archaeology committee.

CAG: Does the surprising amount of debris change the speed of dredging?
EPA: We anticipate we will be able to separate and stabilize within two years according to the timeline – very happy with how this operation went. Remember, we have to put down three or four layers. Right now there are winds blowing, so that changes things. There was some damage to the Whole Foods esplanade – this is being worked out between Whole Foods and the PRPs; the agreement is that the original contractor and the PRPs are paying the whole cost.

CAG: Will that repair happen after the sheet piles go in at the Fourth Street Basin?
EPA: Unsure, but Whole Foods wants them in after the dredging but before the capping.

CAG: Will the metal barrier currently in place stay there?
EPA: They will be below the water level – the one in the barrier across will stay there until the 3rd Avenue Bridge work is finished, and will keep that cutoff wall under the bridge.

CAG: Is it safe for canoers? How far will the walls come out?
EPA: We want to make sure it is safe.

The other thing EPA promised was a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) about the building at the top of the canal within the footprint of the design of the detention tank. EPA does have drafts but is not sharing them yet – still lots of give and take and conversations. Some briefings as far as scheduling conflicts happened later than earlier, and EPA will circulate it in the next few days and send it to Doug.

We have been in touch with State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO), and have taken the CAG comments and incorporated all the comments. We will ask for further input on how we represented what the CAG has shared in approximately one month. We have had consultations for six months. As we promised and as Brian said, you’ll have the ability to provide input again, and EPA will come up with a final decision in mid-summer, probably by July.

Questions and Answers

CAG: Can we hold June meeting at the water’s edge?
EPA: We told Doug that was a bad idea. Whole Foods does not like to have groups. You can visit on your own, you’re all from here.

CAG: We thought it would bring in people from the neighborhood.
EPA: Exactly, we don’t want to bring in people to the Whole Foods and impose more than we already have. What would be the objective in holding it there?

CAG: To bring in more people and get them aware.
EPA: The role of the CAG is to have this information dispersed to the community. It is an issue on private ground. This is controlled by the potentially responsible parties; we want everyone to feel comfortable. Christos will make himself available for smaller groups, maybe go to the 3rd Avenue Bridge, we just don’t want to impose on private property.

CAG: Any updates on DEP with the Headhouse site?
EPA: DEP was not responsive, we thought the proposed building heights were excessive. Last week we issued a letter of direction with specific ways to reduce the height. In that letter, I asked them to provide a design based on the advice EPA gave, so we hope around June 18 they move in that direction and respond appropriately, we have a meeting then. We sent them the directive letter, and we will report again after conversations with them.

CAG: Can we take videos and pictures and post them to the CAG website for neighbors to see?
EPA: Yes, that is no problem and up to the CAG.

EPA: NYS Department of Health and NYC DEC are working on the fishing warning signs, and they aren’t finished yet; hopefully by next CAG meeting there will be a sign to discuss.
CAG: By that time the Water Quality committee will have locations picked out.

Public: Is there a capping schedule?
EPA: Capping should begin the second half of June; we’re currently evaluating best methods of cap laying – no exact date but that is the time frame.

Community Visioning Process

Ben Solotaire (Council Member Levin’s Office): Two months ago there was a visioning session resolution – Levin’s office began that process. Last week there was a CSO DEP meeting – NYCHA, Thomas Greene Park, Gowanus Houses, CAG, Nydia Velázquez’s office, and many more. There will be a community meeting in several months, maybe by the end of the year.

CAG: Who is included in that visioning? We thought that the planning would involve us?

CAG: We thought the Land Use committee would be in charge of this process, and you’re creating what sounds like a Shadow CAG – why isn’t it the responsibility of the CAG?

Benjamin Solotaire: We thought it was addressed to us to look at Thomas Greene Park as a whole community.

CAG: This is a process for input from the broader community, not just the CAG. CB6 also wrote a resolution, and Levin’s office is working with that – the CAG resolution looks very similar to the CB6 resolution.

CAG: Seems like so far it has been an exclusive community.

Benjamin Solotaire: If too selective, this is a planning group to create a way that is as inclusive as possible.

CAG: The CAG is looking forward to joining that group

CAG: There are five or six members of the CAG on the group now.

Doug: How do we have a more open and trusting environment? Many community organizations are represented here, and they participate in activities in many different ways, and they’re not always going to agree. We do a great job of getting to consensus; sometimes you don’t agree that Is part of the process. Let’s talk about how we can do that in an open and trusting way. There is no shadow CAG. The CAG will work with Levin’s office to find an acceptable solution.

CAG Executive Session

Doug Sarno reported that over the course of the past few months, there have been many issues raised related to CAG member relationships and overall administration of the CAG. The Facilitation and Administration committees met on their own, and then together. Some things were touched on and some not so much. In relation to the various meetings – some of the challenges the CAG is facing are structural to the formation of the CAG. In facilitating/teaching at the Community Involvement University at EPA, there are several helpful things to relate:

  • One of them is leadership. Most CAGs have a formal Chair or leadership-team structure. Two to four people who coordinate with the facilitator, help the CAG stay organized, serve as spokespeople. Leadership usually changes each year or so, knows that their role is not to carry their own water but to make the CAG work.
  • This CAG has also never considered membership turnover as a systemic issue. CAGs usually have a distinct set of community perspectives and voices that they want to always be at the table, and try to keep this balance over time. Gowanus has a lot of organizational members who somewhat serve this purpose, but no real structure to what at-large members should represent. Also, the range of members do not necessarily reflect who shows up on a regular basis. This CAG doesn’t bring on new members based on replacing perspectives that are missing. Also, most CAGs have terms, these are not meant to be lifetime appointments.
  • A CAG member noted that when we bring new members on board, there should be some orientation – Ben, Peter, Susan are all relatively new, and we didn’t bring anything to them – some orientation package could be better than reading the old minutes.
  • Doug offered to put together an overview that shows what successful CAGs are doing.

There’s a lot of tension and frustration – one of the great things about this group is how people come from different walks of life. There will be times when people don’t agree. What’s so valuable about his group is that despite the different points of view, that you are often able to find a consensus recommendation, because otherwise this is just noise. EPA gets the most value from a CAG when it is not merely a reflection of the noise from all different groups, but is a place where the community can come together and talk about hard issues in a civil way, and identify overall community concerns and priorities. Rarely is the CAG where the Remedial Project Manager RPM shows up at each meeting, like this one does. You are right across the river from the EPA Region 2 office, so that really helps, but EPA needs to see that the CAG is serving a balanced role for the whole community.

When CAG members call Doug and say they want to quit, that’s a sign we need to work at this. You’re all busy people – and engaged at a deep level and passionate about making Gowanus a better place. You all probably agree on about 80 to 90 percent of stuff, and sometimes passionately disagree. You also work with and for lots of different organizations that are active in Brooklyn, this is why you are here, and nobody should expect that you are not still representing your home group. That is the nature of community.

Committee attendance and communication are both issues that people are concerned about let’s look at it all and talk about it and make the CAG work.

CAG: One thing that has led to animosity is that certain segments of the CAG feel like they’ve been excluded. One thing we should do is try to get the press corps back; the first year there were reporters here all the time. When they are here, people will announce more things, and that gives incentive for people to share.
Doug: What can be perceived as exclusion is often just being tired or forgetful. The CAG should be a communication point – there is no longer a communications committee – let’s work on the structure of communication rather than thinking people are being left out or uninformed intentionally.

CAG: Admin did talk about that; there is an obligation especially on the Outreach Committee. The people who did get the invitations to the Levin meetings are the ones who also get funds from the city, and then they had time to prepare for those meetings, and knew they could share, but if you’re going to be on the CAG there is an obligation to share.

City Council – most of the community doesn’t want it but city does and we feel like the city doesn’t want it and this is one opportunity where one person can talk – community boards don’t offer that – think the CAG is effective – what we’re facing right now is because of the other tensions.

CAG: Curious to know what people think of us having a leadership team, given that we do already have strong leadership in the group. A few more layers of admin beyond Doug to a formal degree – the committees are not providing that.

CAG: What is the CAG mission statement, because out of that we understand the role. If anybody thinks I’m a conduit of info on Gowanus you’re wrong. Not everything about the Gowanus has to come here; if it is about the Superfund cleanup, then yes it should.
EPA: The mission of the CAG is concerning issues of the Superfund site – the site and its definition has changed. Started with the water body of the canal, but right now, other than that, there are designs on land for the retention tanks and this definitely extends to them. When we have the agreement with National Grid, it also explains the Superfund site – to give clarity.

CAG: Well functioning CAGs – what do they do that we don’t do?

Doug: Another CAG I facilitate has a two-person leadership team, different co-chairs, strong community leaders. They are often thought-leaders as well but put away their agendas in order to oversee the function and membership of the CAG to uphold the mission and charter; it is time consuming. We have to figure out how to make this work with the membership and resources we have here. For another CAG in Michigan, there is a three-person leadership committee – we look at it each year and see if people want to stay on or step up – we want to have a balance of interests so it’s not three people from the same groups or perspectives.

Other CAGs have just had a single chairperson who was fair and balanced and can serve as spokesperson.
There are different models – it doesn’t have to be a chair. Tried to get the Facilitation Committee to serve as the leadership group for this CAG, and we got pushback saying the Facilitation Committee was acting illegally. We knew it was beyond the purpose in the Charter, but the CAG needed a place where they could address basic leadership functions. Last January asked who is on, who is off – hard to have structure if we don’t feed it. The Outreach Committee met every other month, once in the morning, once in the evening – so much pushback for trying to be accommodating to different schedules that people complained and quit. We have to come together to be fair to ourselves and reasonable to each other. Everyone is very busy, most of the people on the CAG are active throughout the community, and this is not your only volunteer position. I appreciate how much all of you give to this and the Gowanus community – giving this away for the betterment of your community. Everyone is here out of passion for Gowanus just like you.

CAG: Everyone here is trying to do what is good for the neighborhood. Disagreeing is different than distrust. Disagreeing is good but it is worrisome when we go from there to distrust naturally. When you feel there is distrust, take it offline – hash it out somewhere else. It has to be fixed at a smaller table, not at the big CAG meeting.
Doug: Yes, it undermines the whole dynamic of the CAG. We have little overall time together as a whole, 10 meetings at 2 hours, that is only 20 hours a year, we need to use is productively.

CAG: Vision statement: CAG advances hopes and dreams “intensive transparency, look this up.” I didn’t join the CAG – I don’t have a financial stake in it. I met the EPA group and fell in love with their honesty and commitment to making the canal clean and advancing the mission. We lost focus – thought everything would be clean by 2020 – something happened where one group decided that some had certain areas of interest for them and then PRPs decided to delay and build a different agreement.
Doug: Let’s try not to compound the argument by pointing fingers. I’ve been working on Superfund since the law was passed, and this site is a rocket ship compared to most processes, so even with delays you should appreciate how quickly this cleanup is progressing. Every community gets to complete exhaustion at some point.
CAG: Serious Fatigue.

EPA: This CAG has a history that others might not be aware of – must face the peculiarity that the local government is a PRP, and the fact that certain members of the CAG belong to organizations that are funded by the city, which is also a PRP. There was a big discussion as to who should pay for the cleanup. If you knew that some members here were funded by National Grid or Exxon, should recognize it and maybe confront whether there is a conflict of interest or not.
Doug: Any conflicts of interest need to be raised and discussed. Everyone has a personal stake, everyone wants something from this in different ways. Sometimes people will see eye to eye and sometimes not; don’t vilify people, just understand the different perspectives and disagreements.

CAG: When the process doesn’t allow all perspectives on the table, that’s a problem.
Doug: The City is not connected to the CAG in the way the EPA is, and thus City activities are often outside of my radar and I don’t have the information to share with the CAG.

EPA: Fatigue is real; this CAG is functioning well.

CAG: We’re the biggest CAG ever.
Doug: In membership but not in attendance. A CAG member pointed out that only 12 people were present.

EPA: CAGs naturally go away over time, just given how long the Superfund process takes.

CAG: When we had 50 people coming a quarter of them were from Real Estate interests.
Doug: The size was not necessarily a good thing – we get around 20 to 22 people on average, though we still have close to 40 members. Most CAGs have around 25 members, with a majority of people attending the meetings. Making the commitment to sitting at the table shouldn’t be taken for granted.

CAG: Something we discussed before is the fact that we had a PRP that has fought every step of the way, and that has had a real impact on our function. When Walter got up and spoke to introduce it to the community, and then Cas Holloway interrupted and talked about why this wasn’t an issue – it had an impact. Why doesn’t it have an impact that the city knew about the hearing?
CAG: So when DEP has a meeting and that meeting is part of creating a section 106 at the end of their meeting?
EPA: I told the city not to participate – no approval. This is taking place under EPA oversight, so the city should not be presenting. The City is out of order, and EPA is going to call them back, but this should not be a reason for friction between CAG members.

CAG: Everyone has different opinions. The battle between the EPA and the City are bigger than us.
CAG: Helps to acknowledge people within our group are on one side and some are on the other.
CAG: Do you think these people actually have bad intentions?

Doug: The CAG can be a conduit for good communication – we’ll develop a plan moving forward and continue to do our best.

CAG: You forwarded DEP info to us; did you ever get anything about the DEP and city council thing?
Doug: I forward everything I get that is relevant to the CAG.

CAG: Is the anger at DEP for not telling the CAG, or is it at members of the CAG who knew and didn’t tell the CAG?
CAG: Both.
CAG: Do you think some members are being nefarious?

Doug: At the beginning, in trying to start a website, we’ve been constricted and it seems insular and like people don’t like to share and are getting frustrated at how the CAG was constructed historically. The people on this CAG are not trying to do unconstructive things. You all work at different organizations with different objectives – let’s get better at making nice. Lots of tension in the air right now. As a nation we aren’t getting along – that is having an impact; we’re all stressed. It is good to pause and take a breath. We’re all doing what we can – let’s not cast blame. Let’s just say we can do better next time.

CAG: Going to your encouragement of wanting to embrace as many communities as possible – people in public housing might not have the flexibility to come to these meetings. Not having their faces makes me feel like a failure.
Doug: Over time it has gotten hard.
CAG: Specific issues relating to their life exclusively – not just in NYCHA but even here – our stuff is never going to come out and then we aren’t able to engage specific issues within the bigger context.

Doug: How do we engage them better – maybe it isn’t just saying we need several who rotate or maybe it is a different type of relationship.
CAG: The Fifth Avenue Committee kind of represents them and is a good advocate for NYCHA residents.
CAG: Meet them where they’re at.
CAG: Every few meetings we could meet elsewhere. This current setup at Mary Star of the Sea does not work well – the round tables aren’t conducive to good dialogue, physical space changes how things work.

CAG: Possible leadership – this is a role where people could advocate more and get folks involved in NYCHA housing – as an expert in CAGs, could we get five recommendations of things we might want to implement?
Doug: The best idea right now is to go back to the initial vision of the Facilitation Team – one person from each committee, and then maybe one at-large person so five people, six at most. The Charter doesn’t call it a leadership team, just a facilitation team. This is where the CAG has rebelled, but if it is a balanced group, it could take care of itself.

CAG: When they merged Outreach into it, Facilitation became something else.
Doug: Agreed, Facilitation is not working as leadership team.

CAG: At the last Facilitation Committee, it was decided that Outreach needs to be reestablished.

CAG: Having the committees all meet on the same night instead of general meeting – now there are only two committee nights.

Doug: It sounds like folks have agreed on bringing back the Outreach Committee, that does not need a formal vote. The Facilitation Committee as one person from each of the committees, so then every group is represented and seems egalitarian. Needs to be one from each because that’s where the balance seems uneven. Those four or five people have to decide when to meet – there is value to having meetings on one night – but some people want to be on more than one committee. What we have now, two committee-meeting nights (and a morning, too) – have to occur when people interested are in two meetings. Would like to see Facilitation Committee become a team.

CAG: Are most of our committees under 10 people? For some we could do online meetings? Would that make it easier to hold them or have higher participation?
CAG: We take the discussion online part of the month after the meeting.

Doug: We have those tools now. It is 2018 and it’s silly if we have a charter clause that prevents us from using the tools at our disposal. We aren’t saying get rid of in-person meetings – but would encourage committees to engage as much as possible. We don’t have all the players, but we have enough and a quorum so you can make decisions here.

We are asking each committee to get their acts together, coordinate as much as possible – people appreciate when they can go to more than one. We need to re-instate Outreach. We have five committees (Water Quality, Archaeology, Land Use, Outreach, Admin), the leadership team will be one from each of those – do we also need one at-large person? The committees need to decide who they want to put forward.

CAG: The Facilitation Committee could meet by conference call.
Doug: Yes that might be the most efficient for that one.

Doug: It is agreed that we will re-instate the Outreach Committee and each individual committee will identify representatives to the leadership team.

CAG: When we identify those people on leadership – will they have an alternate?
Doug: That would make sense.

CAG: For now, first Tuesdays will go back to just be Land se and nothing else.

Doug: We clearly did not get to everything tonight, and the June meeting will be very busy, so we will not likely have time for internal conversations. Looking at membership procedures will be something to tee up in July.

CAG Members and Active Alternates Present

Diane Buxbaum
Dave Briggs
Marlene Donnelly
George Fiala
Ben Jones
Hildegaard Link
Eric McClure
Peter Reich
Chrissy Remein
Buddy Scotto
Maryann Young (alternate for Rita Miller)
Brad Vogel

Others Present

Doug Sarno, Facilitator
Brian Carr, EPA
Sophia Rini, EPA
Christos Tsiamis, EPA

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