Industrial Evolution

Nowhere is Brooklyn’s industrial past more evident than in the Gowanus Canal, which the EPA has just named a Superfund site. Hamida Kinge interviews Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Tia Lessin about the designation’s impact on the neighborhood where she works.

The Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn. JGNY

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It would be tough to argue that Brooklyn is not the nation’s foremost cultural and artistic mecca. But it wasn’t always that way. Once upon a time, starting in the mid-1800s to be exact, Brooklyn was a mecca of a different sort, a hub for industrial manufacturing. Petrol and chemical refineries, coal yards, tanneries – these and other facilities flourished in New York City’s most populated borough and were among the plants that once operated along the Gowanus Canal. Those manufacturers would eventually leave their buildings behind – buildings that would later get converted into art studios to welcome the borough’s new vanguard in the four neighborhoods it borders: Park Slope, Red Hook, Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens.

During Brooklyn’s industrial past, however, which lasted over a century, the Gowanus Canal was plagued by years of chemical discharges, such as PCBs, and storm water runoff that further washed industrial pollutants into the waterway. Combine the chemicals with combined sewer overflows and the Gowanus Canal had become one of the city’s most polluted waterways. The putrid, oily canal, which had earned the name The Lavendar Lake for its unnatural color, was never cleaned up. (Purple ink was one of many industrial substances discharged into the Gowanus Canal and may account for its “lavender” hue.) But earlier this month the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency named the canal a Superfund site, despite vehement opposition from Mayor Bloomberg.

Superfund sites are abandoned hazardous waste sites that are designated as national priority because they have become a potential danger to public health and the environment. The Superfund title gives the EPA the green light to go after polluters for the money it will take to remediate the canal, a very expensive endeavor to the tune of $300 million to $500 million. The EPA has already begun a search for the companies responsible. Within the last few weeks they have named nine companies, including electric and gas company National Grid, and have since been investigating the role played by 20 additional companies, including ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and Citigroup.

The Bloomberg administration fought the Superfund designation, in preference of its own plan for cleaning up the canal. Bloomberg called the Superfund process too slow. He also worried the title would scare away developers, who have been eying the area to erect condominiums and luxury apartment complexes. The city’s proposed cleanup plan, which city officials argue would have been faster, involved requesting earmarked funds from Congress and voluntary contributions from polluting companies. Despite Bloomberg’s opposition to the EPA decision, he has pledged to cooperate with them.

Notably, the City of New York is among those expected to pay one of the biggest shares in contaminating the canal.

Next American City recently spoke with award-winning and Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker Tia Lessin about her response to the EPA decision. Lessin, along with Carl Deal, co-directed and co-produced Trouble the Water, which tells the story of a couple living in the 9th Ward of New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hits. Lessin’s office, which she shares with Deal, sits inside of the Old American Can Factory, a former industrial complex on the edge of the Gowanus Canal. The Can Factory houses workspace for over 200 artists, designers and manufacturers.

Next American City: Has the polluted Gowanus Canal been relevant to you in any way since locating your office there in 2006?

Tia Lessin: I worry about the toxic Canal everyday. I spend more time in my office than I do at home. Is the water leaching into the ground and into the water supply that I use to wash my hands and dishes? Into the air? What are the effects of long-term exposure to arsenic, benzene, PCBs, coal tar wastes, heavy metals and volatile organics?

NAC: How do you feel about the EPA’s move to name the Gowanus Canal a Superfund site?

Lessin: I am happy about the Superfund designation. The city had no real plans to clean it up, so the feds will step in. And hold those responsible for polluting the canal, including the City of New York, ConEd, National Grid, CIBRO Petrol Products, the Chemtura Corporation, and the U.S. Navy, financially liable.

NAC: Does the Superfund title affect your business in any way?

Lessin: It will delay the construction of the Whole Foods across the street, which is a good thing because building a grocery store largely underground on a contaminated site seemed like a really bad idea, and against all common sense.

NAC: What impact do you expect it to have on neighborhood business and development?

Lessin: I think it will have a positive impact. Once the site is truly cleaned up the area can develop, along a healthy, viable waterway. What this community does not need is the building of more luxury condos, and I hope the community holds strong against that kind of development. What we do need is more spaces for creative industries that have been pushed out of Manhattan and are getting priced out of even this neighborhood. The Old American Can Factory at the edge of Gowanus is a sanctuary for visual artists, filmmakers, musicians, writers, and performance artists, and I would like to see more spaces like this in the neighborhood.

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Hamida Kinge has written about everything from food security to ocean acidification to luxury cell phones. She was a 2009 fellow of the Scripps Howard Institute on the Environment and a 2008/09 reporting fellow of the Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting. She has contributed to Next American City, Grist, Philadelphia City Paper and U.R.B. domestically as well as Europe-based magazines Essential Macau and Straight No Chaser. For the past year, she has been teaching English as a foreign language to international students and business professionals. Hamida has also been a volunteer English tutor for the International Center in New York.

Tags: new york cityinfrastructuremichael bloombergbrooklynwater

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