Clearing up some facts about Lightstone’s Gowanus agreement

The Carroll Street Bridge.

The Carroll Street Bridge.

On Tuesday, the Environmental Protection Agency announced it had reached an agreement with The Lightstone Group regarding remediation work on LSG’s 700-unit Gowanus development. The $20 million cleanup is needed to remove various contaminants in the soil, including petroleum from a gas plant that blew up in 1870 and kept the site off-limits for decades.

One reason you don’t see a lot written on the cleanup of the Gowanus: the process is absurdly wonky. The Record of Decision, which lays out the EPA’s findings and the plan for fixing the canal, is over 1,000 pages long if you include the appendices.

This turns off a lot of reporters, which is a shame, because it’s a topic that deserves to be understood. I tried to do this for my New York Times feature on Eymund Diegel, one of several residents invested in cleaning up the canal the right way.

The short version of EPA’s involvement: the $500 million cleanup, slated to be completed in 2022, will be funded by the 39 entities who were (or whose predecessors were) responsible for the canal’s sordid condition. The City of New York and gas conglomerate National Grid will foot the largest portions.

Lightstone had nothing to do with the current situation, and this agreement gives the developer protection from lawsuits relating to previously existing pollution. (This doesn’t extend to any future damage for which Lightstone might be responsible.) The EPA is not suing or penalizing Lightstone in any way.

The boat launch for the Gowanus Dredgers.

The boat launch for the Gowanus Dredgers.

The important distinction between federal and state oversight went missing in all of the articles I read. Federal Superfund only concerns water-bound pollution, not pollution on land; that falls to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC), which operates the Brownfield Cleanup Program. Developers can receive tax breaks in return for (voluntarily, to some extent) addressing  issues with the soil.

Lightstone was already doing some cleanup of its toxic grounds; for weeks, neighbors complained of noxious odors that kept them up at night. The $20 million figure includes much of the cost Lightstone was likely already planning to spend. The EPA got involved because a failure to completely clean the soil could re-contaminate the canal.

The initial reaction I got from the residents with whom I spoke was positive. They’re thrilled in particular that the development will be subject to stricter federal standards and oversight. Each had some quibbles, and I trust they will submit their comments to the EPA before the October 8 deadline.

Here’s a line I had in my original draft for my Times piece:

… the various parties interviewed agreed that EPA has been transparent and open to suggestions, with Linda Mariano of FROGG labeling the agency “a gift to the community.”

The EPA has been doing great work in this neighborhood. Their approach is proceeding as planned, despite some disagreements with the city. It’s more than a little sad, then, when people writing about the situation get the story entirely wrong.

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