State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Students Tour Gowanus Canal Superfund Site

On June 30, students in Columbia University’s MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program went on guided tours through the Gowanus Canal Superfund site and the surrounding community. Led by guides from the Friends and Residents of Greater Gowanus (FROGG) and Professors Steven Chillrud and Michael Musso, the Class of 2023 was guided through one of the most contaminated sites in the country.

professor addressing a class outside
Professor Musso addressed the Class of 2023 with opening remarks surrounding the background of the Superfund program at the EPA and the Gowanus site in general.

The Gowanus Canal Superfund site spans over 1.8 miles of Brooklyn, running through the neighborhoods of Park Slope, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens and Red Hook, and empties into the New York Harbor. Built in the mid-1800s, the canal was used as a major industrial transportation route. Manufactured gas plants, paper mills, tanneries and chemical plants operated along and discharged into the canal for decades, along with combined sewage overflows, which continue to carry sanitary waste from homes, rainwater from storm drains, and industrial pollutants. The contaminants present at Gowanus include polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and heavy metals, including mercury, lead and copper.

tour guide speaks to students
David, a tour guide from the Friends and Residents of Greater Gowanus, provides his prospective on the state of the Gowanus Superfund site as students gathered just feet from his home.

Efforts to remediate the site have been underway since March 2010, when the Gowanus Canal site was added to the Superfund National Priorities List. A remedial investigation report was released in February 2011, followed by a feasibility study released in December 2011 and proposed plan for remedy in December 2012. New York City and National Grid have been identified as the major potentially responsible parties of this Superfund site. A plan signed in September 2013 divided the Canal into three segments, each of which would be dredged to remove highly contaminated sediment. After the dredging, the plan calls for the replacement of contaminated sediment with clean material to restore the basin to its original state and cap any remaining contaminants so they will not contaminate clean material.

The Gowanus community, including the FROGG tour guides, have been instrumental in propelling the EPA’s remediation of Gowanus Canal. Nearly 200 people attended the public meeting discussing the EPA’s proposed plan and preferred remedy, and 100 attended the second meeting.

While visiting Gowanus, students from the 2023 cohort learned all about the background of and current state of the Gowanus Canal Superfund site. In addition, the FROGG tour guides — David, Marlene, Miranda and Mark — provided their own perspectives as those who have been living through Gowanus’ remediation for nearly a decade. The students were also fortunate enough to see, first-hand, remediation efforts in action, having spotted dredging equipment and professionals actively working to remediate the site.

While remediation continues, the FROGG tour guides shed light on their latest community organizing efforts: their opposition to a re-zoning proposition that would add thousands of new apartments to Gowanus. As recent as February 2022, Voices of Gowanus, FROGG and area residents filed a suit fiercely opposing re-zoning of Gowanus, citing a cocktail of health and safety risks associated with it, as well as the perpetuation of pervasive environmental injustices. The suit attacks a failure to adhere to the National Environmental Protection Act and the National Historic Preservation Act and asserts that the environmental impact statement associated with the rezoning violated the New York State Environmental Quality Review Act, Environmental Conservation Law and the New York State Protection Act. Still, re-zoning of Gowanus remains an ongoing issue facing the community.

man pointing at something in the canal
FROGG tour guide David points to dredging equipment located across the canal while standing feet from the Gowanus Canal itself.

During the Gowanus tour, news broke of the Supreme Court’s recent decision in West Virginia v. EPA, which curtailed the Clean Air Act and which will restrict the EPA’s power to regulate emissions from existing power plants. While learning about the success stories involving remediation, this devastating news travelled fast amongst the cohort. These students, as well as those who came before and those who will follow, must now rise to the challenge and ensure that we continue to remediate contamination, clean our environment, and advocate for greener policies.

Anika Becker is a 2022 graduate of Columbia’s MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program.

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Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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