As an alternative to an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund cleanup, the Bloomberg Administration has proposed a cleanup plan to be carried out by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that would be partly funded by a Congressional appropriation awarded through the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA).
City officials have said their plan would rely on up to, or potentially more than, $100 million in WRDA funding, and would only work if Congress appropriates the funds for the canal.
But an investigation into WRDA guidelines, and interviews with Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez - whose district includes the canal and who has led efforts to plan for its cleaning since 2002 - and with the Army Corps (USACE), shows that a cleanup of the Gowanus Canal has not been authorized for any Congressional funding and is not likely to receive any for the next several years, if not longer.
If this is true, it puts into question the legitimacy of a city plan that Velazquez criticized as infeasible.
"The Gowanus Canal has never been included in WRDA and this is the vehicle the city is proposing to use," Velazquez said. "For the city to say that their plan relies on money that the federal government won't be able to provide is a disservice to the community."
In order for the Gowanus Canal to receive WRDA funding to help pay for a cleanup, as the city is suggesting, a specific project for the canal must first be authorized in a WRDA bill, Velazquez explained.
This is unlikely to happen anytime soon, Velazquez said, because WRDA already has a backlog of over 1,000 authorized projects with an estimated cost of $61 billion waiting for the necessary funding with which to break ground.
"The authorizing committee [in charge of WRDA projects] does not like to include new projects because there's already so many waiting in line," said Velazquez.
Considering that WRDA receives roughly $2 billion from Congress each year for USACE projects, Velazquez said it would obviously take "a very long time" for the already approved projects to be completed before new ones can begin. She added that it remains unclear when Congress might pass another WRDA bill. They are typically considered every two years, but in practice are passed on a rough average of once every four years.
Despite this, however, city officials, who were unavailable for comment on this story, are hoping to receive funding for an Army Corps cleanup within two years, a plan Velazquez said was wholly unrealistic.
"They don't know what they're talking about," she said of city officials who developed the alternative proposal.
The Water Resources Development Act was first signed into law in 1974. Since then, Congress has passed nine new WRDA bills, each authorizing appropriations to be made by the federal government for a new set of projects around the country.
After a six-year drought, Congress passed the most recent WRDA bill in 2007, after overriding, for the first time, a veto by former President George Bush. In a close reading of that bill (HR 1495), the Gowanus Canal does not appear among hundreds of projects listed for authorization.
However, the bill does include approximately $19 million for the continuation of an environmental remediation study of the Hudson-Raritan Estuary (HRE), encompassing the ports of New York and New Jersey, that was first approved by Congress in 1999 and which itself included a feasibility study of the Gowanus Canal.
Mark Lulka, USACE's Gowanus Canal project manager, said the corps began that $5 million study in 2002 and have roughly 18 months left of work. (So far, Lulka said, USACE and the city's Department of Environment Protection have spent a combined $3.8 million on the study).
Lulka said while the HRE project in the 2007 WRDA bill does authorize a continued feasibility study for the Gowanus, he agreed with Velazquez that for the city's plan to work the canal would need a new authorization afor the actual cleanup project itself, as well as an appropriation for additional funding.
"Right now there is not money," for a WRDA-sponsored Army Corps cleanup, Lulka said. He said the corps has temporarily slowed its canal investigation operations as it waits to see what government agencies assume control of the cleanup process.
"The corps wants to see it get cleaned up," said Lulka. "How it happens is outside our purview."
Velazquez said compared to the city's plan, an EPA-led Superfund cleanup appears to be the best option at this point.
"The more research we do," Velazquez said, "the more convinced I am that the best course of action is a Superfund designation."