By Trudy Whitman
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
When the waters of the Gowanus Canal gushed over its banks during Hurricane Sandy, flooding the streets and the basements of homes and businesses nearby, it was not the water itself that most worried residents and officials.
It was the noxious waste materials in the canal, declared by the Environmental Protection Agency as one of the most polluted bodies of water in the country.
It’s not only the decades and decades of industrial toxins dumped into the waterway that have caused it to become a hazardous witches’ brew, but the combined sewer overflow (CSO) and ground-level contaminants that flow directly into the channel when rain and snow melt overpower the inadequate sewer system.
Concern over what the neighborhood had been exposed to in late October brought residents together with elected officials and representatives from the EPA, OSHA and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation at a meeting held at P.S. 32 in Carroll Gardens on Nov. 26.
Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez was the first to address the group in a series of short statements from panel members, allowing the evening to be devoted primarily to questions from the audience. Velazquez, who was herself displaced by the storm, witnessed the banks of the canal overflowing and said that she and Judith Enck, the EPA’s Regional Administrator, also present at the meeting, had placed simultaneous calls to each other.
On Oct. 31, the EPA dispatched technicians to carry out tests on standing water in two area basements. The samples were analyzed for bacteria and 139 different chemicals. Although bacteria levels — affiliated with CSOs — were “very high,” Judith Enck said in her statement, the toxins were below levels of concern or not detected at all.
“We do not believe that the storm surge caused scraping of the bottom of the canal,” Enck stated. “That’s a good thing.”
Congresswoman Velasquez said that one of the reasons the meeting was arranged was that “some are skeptical” about the report. And when State Assemblywoman Joan Millman spoke she reminded the group that after 9/11, federal officials from Washington claimed that there was no need to worry about the air quality at the Twin Towers site.
Although audience members brought up issues of immediate concern, such as unresponsive landlords who still hadn’t pumped out basements and what to do about exposure to the high levels of bacteria, the not-too-subtle subtext of the meeting was the future — specifically development on uplands that have just demonstrated what “flood plain” truly means.
Many addressed the 700 living-unit development planned by the Lightstone Group for the banks of the canal, a project opposed by many in the community. Toll Brothers developers had dropped plans for the site after the Gowanus Canal was declared a Superfund site in 2010, but Lightstone is in the process of using the ULURP approvals already obtained by Toll Brothers to restart the engines for the project.
One homeowner referred to the “impermeable barrier” that Lightstone promises to install that will protect its development from storm surge. But the water must go somewhere, the resident reasoned, making homes nearby the likely recipients of even more flooding.
City Councilman Brad Lander responded that environmental questions must be taken seriously, adding that Sandy had changed his mind about the Lightstone project, which will come before the City Planning Commission soon. He said that he plans to testify against the project as it is now designed and that region-wide building code changes should be studied as a result of the storm.
Judith Enck informed the group that the EPA is about to release the Superfund recommendations for cleaning up the toxic sediments that line the Gowanus Canal. There will be a period set aside for public comment after the release.