Cleaning up the Gowanus Canal and the land around it has been a top priority for our community for decades. Thanks to the EPA’s Superfund cleanup, we are finally headed in the right direction. Future development in the area must support the Superfund cleanup, result in no additional sewage in the canal, remediate brownfields, create new public open space, and be built to the highest standards of sustainability and resilience.
The Gowanus Neighborhood Rezoning mandates the highest standards ever imposed in New York City for reducing stormwater/CSO events, elevating future buildings, creating a resilient esplanade, requiring sustainable buildings and technology, and generating new open space so that our community can live, work, and recreate safely and healthily around the remediated canal in the decades to come.
Environmental Burdens on the Canal
Centuries of industrial activity along the Canal, especially from three former Manufactured Gas Plants (MGPs) deposited toxic material, including coal tar, in the soil and waterway. Industrial activity is now regulated and monitored to prevent further environmental harm, but combined sewer overflows (CSOs) still drain into the canal during heavy storms when the City’s wastewater treatment plants reach capacity. Gowanus is within the city’s combined sewer area, which is sensitive to rainfall since stormwater and wastewater share the same pipes.
Gowanus Federal Superfund Cleanup
Thanks to community advocacy and the leadership of Congressmember Nydia Velazquez, and with the support of Councilmember Lander, the Gowanus Canal received federal Superfund designation in 2009. Under the Superfund, the EPA requires the entities responsible for environmental harm to fund and execute a remediation. In Gowanus, National Grid and the City of New York are the primary “responsible parties” (complete list here). The remediation will be closely overseen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).
The EPA issued its Record of Decision establishing a plan to clean the canal in 2013. The Superfund remedy specifically addresses the waterway, but it includes remediation of adjacent sites insofar as they pose a risk for further contamination of the canal through runoff or underground material migration. Public Place (the former Citizen’s MGP site between Smith Street and the Canal, between 5th and 7th Streets) and an adjacent private parcel to the south, is being remediated by National Grid in a separate but concurrent process overseen by DEC, with EPA review.
The Superfund remedy requires:
- Bulkhead repairs by private property owners to support canal dredging.
- Three phases of dredging to remove toxic material (aka “black mayonnaise” from the bottom of the canal. Dredging of Remedial Target Area (RTA) 1, from the top of the canal to the 3rd street bridge, began in November 2020 and is expected to be completed in 2023. The design for RTA2 is underway, and RTA3 design will begin when RTA2 design is complete. Each of the two subsequent phases are projected to take two to three years, which project completion estimated for 2029.
- Installation of protective cap on the bottom of the canal after dredging to prevent any residual material from seeping into the canal.
- Construction by the NYC Department of Environmental Protection of two sewage retention tanks (the first one at the north end of the canal at 234 Butler Street, and the second on the Salt Lot Site at 2nd Avenue and 6th Street). These two tanks will reduce overall CSO volumes by 56% annually, with expected completion in 2028. (The City had asked for a delay in construction, but the EPA, with the support of the local elected officials, is requiring DEP to maintain the proposed timeline).
The EPA has made clear that the proposed Gowanus Neighborhood Rezoning must “protect the remedy,” which means new development cannot add sewage or pollution to the canal. The rezoning contains a number of policy features to meet this goal. The local elected officials have asked the EPA to review the rezoning, to make sure it complies.
Upland Site Remediation
In addition to its obligations under the Federal Superfund program, National Grid is also responsible for remediation of the two other former MGP sites in the area, with oversight by the New York State Manufactured Gas Plant Program and State Superfund Program. Remediation of the former Fulton MGP site, which includes Thomas Greene Park, is currently underway (updates here). The former Metropolitan MGP site (contained between 11th and 13th streets, from 2nd ave to the Canal) was partially remediated in 2003, and National Grid will be doing further remediation in the coming years.
The Gowanus rezoning adds an “e-designation” on contaminated sites in the area, which requires individual property owners of public or private sites to address any hazardous contamination on the property before being issued a permit to build. Many sites are expected to meet these requirements through the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s Brownfield Cleanup Program. The NYC Office of Environmental Remediation (OER) must certify that that the remediation is complete before the NYC Department of Buildings can issue a permit to build.
In addition to its historic and ongoing environmental burdens, Gowanus is also vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Like many neighborhoods in the city’s flood zone, Gowanus currently lacks protections against flooding, storm surge, and sea level rise.
New development within the Gowanus Neighborhood Rezoning area must meet the City’s flood protection elevation requirements, and follow new design standards for an active ground floor. They must also include rooftop solar, wind, or green roofs, and build out a resilient, flood-protected waterfront esplanade.
|OBJECTIVE||New development must be “net zero CSO,” meaning that it does not add new sewage to the canal|
IN THE PLAN:
|In August 2020, the City Council passed legislation authorizing DEP to create a new “2021 Unified Stormwater Rule” that will impose higher standards for new development, including future development around the Gowanus Canal. The new 2021 rule:
Applies to a broader set of sites: The City’s older 2012 rule applies only to sites 1 acre and larger that are in separated storm sewer (aka MS4) areas. The new 2021 rule applies to all new and retrofit construction sites citywide (both separated and combined storm sewer areas) that disturb at least 20,000 square feet of soil or creates 5,000 square feet of impervious area. A more limited set of requirements will apply to all sites regardless of size.
Introduces water retention requirements: The older rule has no requirements for buildings to retain stormwater (i.e. absorb it on-site without release). The new rule adds retention volume requirements, based on a higher rainfall estimate, with a new, more flexible set of design guidelines for achieving them.
Strengthens water detention requirements: For water that cannot be infiltrated on site, the new rule reduces the allowable release rate into the sewage system, in part by reducing the minimum orifice size (from 2” to 1”) through which water can be released. Detaining water on-site for longer helps prevent wastewater treatment plants from reaching capacity during high-volume rainstorms, and reduces the likelihood of a CSO event.
|NEXT STEPS:||My office with other local electeds has requested an independent analysis by the EPA, to confirm the DEP’s analysis that the rezoning would be “net zero CSO.”
As part of its Superfund work, EPA will provide ongoing monitoring to ensure that the remedy for the Canal is protected. We have asked for information about how they will monitor CSO volumes and compliance over time, and will share when it is available.
|OBJECTIVE||New development must support environmental restoration and community health.|
IN THE PLAN:
|The Gowanus rezoning adds an “e-designation” on contaminated sites in the area.
Individual property owners of public or private sites will be required by the NYC Office of Environmental Remediation (OER) to address any hazardous contamination on the property before being issued a permit to build.
Many sites are expected to meet these requirements through the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s Brownfield Cleanup Program.
This requirement applies equally to Public Place (aka Gowanus Green), where National Grid is currently executing an initial cleanup, under the NYS Brownfields Cleanup Program. The Gowanus Green development team will be required to comply with all city and state safety standards before any construction can begin.
|NEXT STEPS:||The Gowanus Green team has agreed to submit their development plans to the EPA for review, so that the EPA can analyze them for health and safety, and to follow any recommendations they make.|
|OBJECTIVE||New development must be built to the highest standards of sustainability to mitigate climate change, and resiliency to be prepared for it.|
IN THE PLAN:
|All new buildings in the 100-year floodplain must meet city elevation standards, which exceed FEMA standards. Elevation requirements are determined on a site-by-site basis following guidelines in Appendix G of the NYC building code. City standards typically add 12 to 24 inches of “freeboard” on top of the “base flood elevation” given by FEMA. The new zoning also includes design guidelines to ensure that building facades are active at the street level.
You can find projections here for sea level rise, tidal flooding, and storm surge exposure for the 100 year and 500 year floodplains.
Canal developers must build a 40-foot, climate resilient public waterfront. The plan will include detailed guidelines to ensure that each segment contributes to a continuous, publicly accessible waterfront park. This new esplanade will be designed with the highest coastal flood resiliency standards ever imposed in New York City, to protect against long-term daily tidal flooding as far out as the year 2100.
New buildings are now required to dedicate 100 percent of their rooftop area to solar, wind or green infrastructure, pursuant to city legislation from 2019.
|NEXT STEPS:||Zoning for Coastal Flood Resiliency, a new zoning text currently in public review, would allow properties in the 0.2% annual chance (500 year) floodplain to use resiliency zoning regulations.
My office is pushing for a City commitment to work with the community on an “emergency preparedness plan,” so the Gowanus community — current and new residents — are as prepared as possible for future climate events and other emergencies.