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Bloomberg on the Gowanus waterfront

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The city’s top boss last week arrived at the fetid foot of the Gowanus Canal, touting an alternate scheme for its clean-up and predicting a bright future for the polluted waterway — provided the city steers its revival.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, along with a host of elected officials and invited community members, visited the canal Oct. 9 to announce the beginning ofimprovements for the canal — work that had been planned as early as 2002.

The $150 million initiative will see a $50 million rehabilitation of the existing flushing tunnel and a $85 million upgrade of the wastewater pumping station, work expected to improve water quality and reduce odors at the 1.8 mile canal, one of the country’s most polluted water bodies.

The project, expected to be completed in 2013, will increase water flow into the canal by pumping water from Buttermilk Channel to the head of the canal, enriching oxygen levels in the water, keeping foul odors at bay.

Combined sewer overflows will be diverted away from the canal to a nearby sewage plant, and about 750 feet at the upper end of the canal will be dredged, helping to further eliminate Lavender Lake’s trademark odors at low tide.

Bloomberg said his visit was in part to show that “we should do something for this part of Brooklyn,” and in part “to show our good faith,” to Lisa Jackson, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA is currently weighing whether to name the canal a Superfund site, a designation Bloomberg strongly opposes. By showing that the city is rolling out with the long-awaited upgrades, Bloomberg reasoned, the feds might be moved to favor the city’s alternate plan. “If we can convince her we’re real, she will listen to our arguments,” Bloomberg said.

EPA spokesperson Elizabeth Totman said her agency supports the upgrades, but “the announcement [the mayor] made on Friday will not have an impact on the Superfund listing process,” she said.“They are two different things.”

Bloomberg said if the canal is designated a Superfund site, its cleanup would proceed at a glacial pace, and some $400 in private development planned along the water’s edge would all but disappear. He said the program, which puts the burden of cleaning toxic sites on the polluters, is a misnomer. “There is no money in the fund,” he said. Getting the money from those potentially responsible for polluting the canal, could take decades, the mayor added. “In the meantime, absolutely nothing will be done to clean up the canal.”

Totman said Superfund receives congressional appropriations every year. “We’ve never had a problem with funding.” She confirmed that Bloomberg has reached out to Jackson. “It was a phone call. It was one instance,” she said, adding that she assumed the two discussed technical aspects of the city’s plan. The city’s alternate scheme would rely on the power of persuasion and incentives to bring potential polluters to the table,and seek to employ the Water Resources Development Act, which allows the Army Corps of Engineers to perform environmental restoration in a navigable channel.

Bloomberg predicted a full clean-up could span close to a decade. When that day comes, he predicted a more bucolic future for the former industrial waterway. Ten years from now, he predicted, “we can certainly have walkways along the banks. It will be a place where birds will land and fish [swim].” But humans will be another story. “It’s not going to be a swimming area,” he said.

But not everyone got to share in the day’s good news. Linda Mariano and a handful of area residents were turned away from the event.

“I actually felt quite sick,” said Mariano, a member for the group Friends and Residents of the Greater Gowanus, a group that has long advocated for a clean canal and supports its designation as a Superfund site.“It made me cry,” she said. “We have been doing the right thing for so many years and to be turned away like that, it’s very saddening and disheartening. It’s an insult to the people who live here.”

Bloomberg spokesperson Marc LaVorgna said those outside the gates were “protesters” and were not invited guests.“They were provided an adequate space outside the event to make their point. We’ve met with them in the past, had discussions and we want the same thing, a clean canal. We just have a different beliefs on what will be the best way to get there,” he said.

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