What is a Brownfield? 

A Brownfield is a previously developed commercial or industrial site with known or suspected historic contamination, as opposed to “greenfield” sites, which are often in exurban settings without prior development. Due to the industrial history of the Gowanus neighborhood, there are numerous brownfields, particularly on the Canal waterfront. Former industries include foundries, paint and ink factories, coal yards, machine shops, chemical plants, a cement maker, a tannery, and three Manufactured Gas Plants (MGPs), which converted coal into gas for heating and lighting. This map from 1942 shows the variety of industries once active along the Canal.

Brownfield Remediation in Gowanus 

The Gowanus Superfund clean-up, overseen by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is limited to the Canal only. The Superfund process requires steel bulkheads to be installed along the waterfront to both support the dredging process and keep additional contamination from upland lots from migrating to the Canal. Investigation and cleanup of upland properties may be performed under the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Brownfield Cleanup Program.

As part of the Gowanus Rezoning, the City of New York plans to oversee and enforce remediation for contaminated sites within the zoning area. As part of the Environmental Impact Statement process defined by CEQR required the Mayor’s Office of Environmental Remediation (OER) to place an E-Designation on “all Gowanus properties where (1) new zoning would allow for additional development or uses not previously permitted and (2) there is a potential for contamination based on existing, historic, or adjacent land uses.” 

On sites with an E-Designation, the property owner cannot obtain a building permit unless all hazardous material, air quality, and noise impacts are addressed and resolved under a formal process overseen by OER. This process includes 1) site investigation, 2) development of a remediation plan that is approved by OER in consultation with New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), 3) site remediation, and 4) review by OER.

Property owners may qualify for financial incentives and liability protections by enrolling in DEC’s Brownfield Cleanup Program and OER’s Voluntary Cleanup Program.

The level of site remediation required depends on the eventual use of the site.  Sites slated for residential development must achieve greater reduction of site contamination than those slated for industrial or commercial use, in line with DEC’s Soil Cleanup Objectives. These standards cover a wide variety of contaminant types, including metals, PCBs, pesticides, semivolatiles, and volatiles. 

The New York State Department of Health’s soil vapor guidance is used by regulatory agencies to determine the required investigation and mitigation of soil vapor intrusion into buildings. 

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NYC Searchable Property Environmental E-Database

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