Last night, a crowd of one hundred assembled at the Old American Can Factory to join us and the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP) for a different kind of Superfund conversation. The stormclouds decided to cooperate for a change, so we set up folding chairs in the courtyard, and our friends and neighbors Rooftop Films graciously donated time and equipment to make the night a huge success.
CUP Executive Director Rosten Woo got things going by contextualizing this event as part of CUP’s People and Buildings series of live talk shows, which aims to bring together unlikely pairs of speakers with complementary but distinct approaches to issues in our shared urban landscape. The issue at hand was, of course, the raging discussion about the designation of the Gowanus as a Superfund site (today is the EPA’s deadline for public comments on the designation; send in your thoughts here). But this event delved deeper than the immediate context, to draw connections between toxicological history, information networks, environmental art practice, and the financial and legal issues challenging Superfund at local, state and national levels.
Dan Wiley, community liaison for Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez, kicked things off by providing some local context. He presented a comprehensive overview of the canal’s history, from the settlement of Chief Gowane and his tribe through the rapid urban development of Brooklyn to the canal’s current state of extreme environmental degradation. I learned many new things (and I’m pretty nerdy about the Canal as it is), including the fact that a canal restoration feasibility study completed by the Army Corps of Engineers in 2002 provided the information for the EPA to recommend placing the Gowanus on its National Priorities List (NPL). Our other fave canal, Newtown Creek, never benefited from the same level of investigation, which is why despite tireless community advocacy, it has received less attention from federal agencies than the Gowanus has to date.
The first panelist to speak was the artist Brooke Singer. (Check out a video excerpt of her talk here.) Singer is the creator of the web-based, interactive art project Superfund365, in which she investigates a different Superfund site each day for a year. Her documentation explores the alarming lack of public information on each of these sites: she found Superfund sites demarcated only with common “keep out” signs or fenced-off lots, and, in one case, a very large shopping mall.
Singer began her investigation of Superfund sites around the country immediately following 9/11, after a conversation with Robert Martin, the EPA’s ombudsman at the time. His passionate advocacy for greater awareness of the environmental hazards posed by the pulverized electrical, chemical and building material – essentially an enormous unlicensed toxic waste incinerator – ran afoul of other political priorities in the tragedy’s aftermath. The political construction of environmental hazards was a theme the recurred throughout the night.
Historian Sarah Vogel picked up this thread. (Check out a video excerpt of her talk here.) Vogel was quick to caution the audience that she does not work on Superfund issues. Her research – which she characterized as asking the question “how did we all get a little plastic?” – focuses more on the body than the environment. Her approach enabled her to invert the question of hazards and clean-up to probe the meanings of chemical safety.
For Vogel, chemical safety operates in a “kind of nexus between science, politics and law.” The ways we differentiate environmental hazards from safe compounds is deeply political. She sketched a history of the petrochemical revolution since 1945, complicating the presumptions that the modern environmental movement began in 1962 with the publication of Silent Spring and reached its apex in 1970 with the commissioning of the EPA.
This history supported her argument against one of the basic principles of mainstream toxicology, that “the dose makes the poison.” In other words, she called into question the notion that as the degree of exposure decreases so does the risk. The facts do not bear this assumption out. Nonetheless, we continue to operate in a system in which risk = hazard × degree of exposure, and in which all ages and stages of life (pregnancy, for example) are presumed to be equally vulnerable. We mitigate risk by limiting exposure, rather than challenging the composition of the hazardous materials itself.
To rethink this problem, Vogel offered a powerful call to action to designers. How could the design of our environments be informed by acknowledgment of continuous exposure to heavy metals, PCBs and organochlorines? Let’s build remediation into the design process.
The final speaker was environmental activist Anne Rabe, who has been working on these issues for over twenty years. (Check out a video excerpt of her talk here.) She outlined some of the history of the Superfund program, beginning with President Carter’s response to the advocacy of Lois Gibbs, a homemaker who discovered, in 1978, that her neighborhood of 20,000 homes was built on top of a toxic waste dump. Gibbs is currently the executive director of Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ), where Rabe is currently the BE SAFE Campaign Coordinator.
Rabe presented the pros and cons of Superfund designation, explaining the very real challenges currently facing the program: the Polluter Pays tax expired in 1995 and the interest in the trust fund was spent by 2003. In other words, since the fund is bankrupt, American tax-payers are bearing far more of the weight than was originally envisioned.
Nonetheless, she said, federal Superfund is a strong law, with a good pool of money, and a clear set of policies guiding clean-ups, including remedial investigation at every stage. President Obama’s budget reintroduces the Polluter Pays fees. Rabe made the most convincing argument of all when she said that if she lived in this area, she would want it designated a Superfund site.
According to Rabe, there is always a direct conflict between those who clean up for the purposes of redevelopment as opposed to those who clean up for the purpose of public health. The first goal should be to protect to public health, she said; redevelopment should be subsequent. The city’s new Office of Environmental Remediation is located in the Mayor’s Office, therefore subject to political priorities and political appointees. The EPA has no redevelopment agenda. Therefore, the agency is free of the conflicts that could lead to financially expedient solutions, such as remediation to an industrial standard as opposed to a residential standard.
Her broad and intimate understanding of how various Superfund clean-ups have gone over the past thirty years also contains some valuable lessons for the neighborhood: well organized community groups have proven, once again, that the squeaky wheels get the grease. Therefore, she advised that if the Gowanus is designated, a well-organized community watchdog must be vigilant in monitoring progress.
Regardless of what whether the Gowanus is designated or makes the National Priorities List, stakeholders should prepare for a long process. The effects on financing are difficult to predict, the cooperation of polluters may require litigation, and clean-ups can take up to fifteen years or more. And whatever the mechanism, robust community involvement will be needed to keep the project on track. Get involved.
Photos by Varick Shute