Noxious New York Redux

Controversy erupts (via Lawyers, Guns & Money) over a plan to remove toxic sediment from the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn and “dewater” it in a yet-unbuilt facility in Red Hook, where it will be mixed with cement. This, the EPA suggests, will render the material inert and also allow it to be used as landfill to expand a dock property owned by a connected developer.

This may be all legit. But there are a few things to consider:

First, even if there is no future catastrophe–a Sandy-type storm, i.e.–the plan emphatically redistributes risk. It takes material that is undeniably putrid, but somewhat contained in the Gowanus Canal, and moves it to a location where it is temporarily much more exposed and vulnerable to dispersal by flood water, wind, or trucking/containment failure, augmenting risk to human health in Red Hook to ameliorate risks to developers’ and politicians’ interests in now-trendy Park Slope-adjacent areas that abut the Gowanus.

Second, the procedural equity of this decision-making process appears to be sorely lacking, meaning that the people bearing the proposed risk are positioned like the pins at the end of the bowling alley–once the ball’s rolling, they’re at a profound disadvantage, forced to bear the burden of proof that they face risk, constructed in the media as NIMBY opponents of job growth, and accused of blocking something that will benefit all New Yorkers.

Third, and this is something that many academics would do well to understand better, in the age of neoliberal governance, the arrival of the EPA on the scene is not the equivalent of the cavalry arriving in Stagecoach. As Ryan Holifield points out [1], the EPA has absorbed the critical demands of the environmental justice movement by recasting itself as a manager of the triad of community concerns, legal remediation requirements, and budgets, whether or not this translates into, uh, y’know, environmental protection.

Fourth, any time is a great time to re-read Julie Sze’s Noxious New York [2], but especially now.

notes:

[1]  Holifield, Ryan. “Neoliberalism and Environmental Justice in the United States Environmental Protection Agency: Translating Policy into Managerial Practice in Hazardous Waste Remediation.” Geoforum 35, no. 3 (2004): 285–297. [see also this volume]

[2] Sze, Julie. Noxious New York: The Racial Politics of Urban Health and Environmental Justice. Urban and Industrial Environments. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2007.

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