GOWANUS, BROOKLYN - On September 6th, staffers to NYS Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon and NYC Council Member Shahana Hanif revealed publicly for the first time that DEC confirmed the release of toxic vapors at levels that triggered an emergency alarm and work stoppage on July 27th at a worksite adjacent to EPA’s massive Gowanus Canal Superfund zone. The worksite is part of the former Citizens Manufactured Gas Plant (MGP), which is currently undergoing partial remediation and toxic containment under the supervision of DEC, an effort that has been widely criticized by the EPA and the community for its inadequacy.
Children who had been playing at St. Mary’s Playground—which is situated directly across from the heavily contaminated site—were the first to report to Assemblymember Jo Anne Simon’s office that they had smelled strong, prominent odors over several days, including July 27th. They were part of a camp run by the nearby International School of Brooklyn in Carroll Gardens and the smells, they said, seemed to be emanating from the former Citizens MGP site.
The children’s report prompted Assemblymember Simon and Council Member Hanif to demand an explanation from EPA and DEC, which eventually led to the belated mea culpa from DEC, only revealed to the public weeks after the incident occurred. DEC confirmed to elected officials that at the same time the children were exposed to noxious fumes, the on-site air monitors at the former MGP site had exceeded the warning level for Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), thereby triggering a work stoppage. While helpful to the construction workers, nobody else in the area was told of the incident or warned of the potentially harmful chemicals in the air.
Local resident Marlene Donnelly emotionally questioned the standards for air monitoring in Gowanus at the Community Advisory Group (CAG) public meeting on September 6th: “The very vulnerable are not being guarded. Even at these standards, are they guarding for infants, or informing other vulnerable people to be cautious or not be in the area?”
A Troubling Pattern of Failed Oversight
Although the DEC claimed that the July 27th “exceedance” was not something that should concern the community, Mia Perez, Land Use Director for Council Member Hanif, pushed back: "It became clear that the efforts that [DEC is] making to communicate and be transparent about this are very insufficient.”
Donna Newton, Community Liaison for Assemlymember Simon, pointed to the dozens of Brownfield sites in Gowanus—many of which are currently undergoing drilling and other heavy construction as part of the 200-acre Gowanus Rezoning—and underscored the absence of any coordinated oversight plan between EPA and DEC to effectively regulate these toxic sites, stating: "Our concern is that it's not just happening at one site, we don't know what's happening is the bottom line. If air quality is not reported in a way that's transparent, we don't know, and this occurrence is a perfect example."
The staffers went on to refute DEC’s recent claim in an August 17th letter to the Gowanus CAG that the agency “is working closely with the elected officials regarding St. Mary’s Park and Playground.”
This lack of transparency and failed oversight marks a disturbing pattern. In another incident on May 19th, the DEC and city officials allowed developers to pile drive into the same toxic area without notification, leaving elected officials and the EPA in the dark. Similarly, there was no public awareness campaign and Assemblymember Simon and Council Member Hanif’s offices were flooded with reports of toxic odors; Voice Of Gowanus sent an investigation request to the EPA’s Inspector General flagging the incident as one of many compliance and oversight failures in violation of State and Federal law.
Putting Children At Risk
Without proper oversight, trust from the community is compromised. At the core of the issue is the dysfunction on display between city, state, and federal officials, who collectively are failing to put the health and safety of New Yorkers before the needs of private real estate developers.
The recent Gowanus Rezoning is allowing private real estate developers to manage the remediation of their toxic land “with oversight.” Air monitors are being used but only apparently to protect their employees and contractors. By relying on private, closed air monitoring systems, our government is failing to protect the health and safety of the public while causing the most at risk, our children, to be the ones who ring the alarm bells.
A full recording of the September 6th Gowanus CAG meeting is available here.