If it makes the list, the EPA would begin a contamination investigation that would lead to the eventual clean up of the canal.
Critics warn that an EPA listing could further complicate the redevelopment of the industrial neighborhood around the canal, which the city is considering rezoning to spur residential and economic growth.
A public policy group representing Toll Brothers, the development company that has proposed a massive residential development on the canal, has already expressed strong opposition to the idea of a Superfund designation, though in a briefing paper the group acknowledged the canal needs to be cleaned.
The proposed listing would specifically address the canal's contaminated sediments, according to EPA spokesperson Beth Totman. Studies have shown canal sediments are contaminated with PCB's and a variety of other pollutants.
"By proposing to list the Gowanus Canal, EPA can ensure that a thorough investigation into the source and extent of the contamination can take place," said the EPA's Acting Regional Administrator George Paviou, in a statement. "The sooner we can get the listing underway, the sooner EPA can begin its work."
The U.S. Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), also known as the Superfund program, was enacted by Congress in 1980 to addresses hazardous waste sites across the country. The program, created in response to the discovery of several toxic waste sites in 1970's, provides federal resources to clean up waste and protect surrounding communities from pollution.
The 1.8-mile Gowanus Canal has been the dumping grounds for toxic wastes from coal yards, oil refineries, and chemical plants, among other heavy industries, since it was completed in the 1860's.
The canal was brought to the EPA's attention by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), according to Beth Totman, an EPA spokesperson. Totman said the DEC made a formal request to the environmental agency to propose the canal for Superfund status in December of last year. The EPA responded by testing the site for superfund eligibility.
"We did a preliminary investigation of the site and we feel that the listing is warranted," said Totman.
Even so, making the Superfund list is no small feat. If the Gowanus Canal is approved, it would take a long time before decontamination work could begin, said Totman.
Each year the EPA announces new additions to the list in the spring and fall. Totman said the earliest the Gowanus could be added to the list would be this fall.
Approval of the canal for Superfund status would initiate a three-step process, said Totman, starting with a remedial investigation, to "better define the extent of the contamination and figure out what we're dealing with."
Following the investigation, the EPA would perform a feasibility study to determine a course of action, and then finally proceed with waste removal. Totman called the proposal for federal designation an important first step for towards cleaning up the canal for the Brooklyn communities surrounding it.
"Our priority is to ensure the health and safety of the surrounding community and environment," Totman said.
In a briefing paper, Geto & de Milly, Inc., the public policy consultants representing Toll Brothers, said Superfund status would stall ongoing efforts to both clean the canal and redevelop the surrounding neighborhood.
The group argued that the lengthy federal Superfund process would likely supersede and possibly suspend more feasible, existing city and state projects to decontaminate the canal itself, while ignoring abandoned industrial sites along the water that also need redress.
Geto & de Milly also stated that a Superfund listing would drive down property prices along the canal, something which no doubt would negatively impact the proposed Toll Brothers residential development.
"There is no disagreement that the Gowanus Canal needs to be cleaned up, and on the fastest track possible," the Geto & de Milly paper stated. "However, if the canal is designated as a Superfund site, there will be devastating consequences for local property owners."
So far, community response to the canal's proposed Superfund designation has been mixed, as residents and civic groups await further information on the project from the EPA.
Community Board 6 members discussed the project at a meeting two days before the canal was officially proposed for the Superfund list but has not yet voted on the project. In a later interview CB6 District Manager Craig Hammerman said a responsible clean up of the canal is necessary.
“Right now the EPA announcement came as somewhat of a surprise and it raises lots of questions,” said CB6 District Manager Craig Hammerman. “I think the community deserves answers.”
Lauren Elvers Collins, executive director of the non-profit Gowanus Canal Conservancy (GCC), said the group would wait to endorse or disapprove of the project until meeting with EPA officials.
"Of course we're interested in cleaning up the canal," said Elvers Collins. "However, we're concerned with what it really means to be on the Superfund list."
She said she shared Geto & de Milly's concerns that a protracted government study for possible Superfund designation could slow existing canal clean-up projects initiated by the GCC and other groups.
"We don't really know how Superfund status will affect this," said Elvers Collins, who expressed hope that the federal government was finally paying attention to the canal.
The official proposal starts a 60-day public review process. The first public meeting on the process was held this week.