The Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club

Below, a report from Mark Hay on the environmental mess in brownstone Brooklyn, which originally published on June 25 on Capital.

By Mark Hay

The Gowanus Canal does not breed much in the way of hope. A stew of ever-increasing piles of waste—human, industrial, and who knows what other sorts—remains and has grown since the last partial dredging by the United States Army Corps of Engineering in 1975, leaving the toxic waterway breeding not much of anything, other than that smell. So when, on March 2 of this year, the Environmental Protection Agency finally added the canal to its Superfund list—setting it up for its first-ever comprehensive cleaning—there was finally some reason for optimism on the banks of what some locals have nicknamed the Lavender Lake.

But now, some of the E.P.A.’s early findings suggest the impossible: the Gowanus Canal, a poster-child for urban environmental ruin, is even worse than we thought.

“In plain English, it’s quite scary,” said Carl Hum, president and C.E.O. of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce. “As a layperson, it was quite shocking.”

When the site was nominated for federal Superfund status in April 2009, the E.P.A. started collecting data, reviewing and analyzing numerous (but scattered and limited) studies conducted over the past decade. This January, the agency began original studies—a bathymetric study, then a sediment sampling two months later, and recent work on test wells for groundwater along the banks. In March, when the Gowanus was officially designated a Superfund site, the E.P.A. began releasing the first truly comprehensive analyses of the Gowanus to the public. Those accounts read like a pharmaceutical supply catalog: polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls, cadmium, naphthalene, dibenzofuran, bendo(a)pyrene, acetone, ethylbenzene, mercury, and arsenic, to name just a few of dozens.

The canal is also brimming with heavy metals, volatiles, and other organic compounds. According to E.P.A. officials, many areas suffer from contamination measurable in parts per million to parts per hundred. Usually it’s a matter for concern when a waterway reaches a toxicity level measurable in parts per billion. In some places in the canal contaminants compose up to 4.5 percent of the total mass of sediments.

It’s no secret that the city’s industrial past polluted many of its waterways, but the Gowanus is also plagued by the present. To this day, raw sewage spews into the canal from, by some estimates, more than 200 pipes of unknown origin. The Army Corps of Engineers estimated such pipes dumped approximately 292.8 million gallons of sewage in 2005, feeding the canal a robust diet of household toxins, as well as live pathogens, including aggressive, disease-causing bacteria associated with the human digestive tract. And, as New York City College of Technology Professors Nasreen and Niloufar Haque have discovered, the canal has even contracted a case of gonorrhea. That is to say, they have discovered live cultures of the (more often) sexually transmitted bacterium free-floating in sample drops of water—not too surprising when considering that typhus, typhoid and cholera cropped up in studies of the Gowanus in the 1970s. Even worse, the Haque sisters have also identified a new strain of carcinogen- and bacteria-resistant micro-organism evolving on the floor of the canal.

While locals may be surprised by the presence of these (and many, many other) contaminants, E.P.A. officials say what’s in the Gowanus is not what caught the agency off-guard. “There’s currently no cutoff wall between the source areas [of chemical runoff on the shores or at sewer pipes] and the canal,” says E.P.A. community involvement coordinator Natalie Loney. “So it’s not surprising if there was a large increase in contaminants over the last decade.”

What is remarkable, officials say, is the rate at which it happened.

Over just seven years, according to E.P.A. testing, the upper canal has accumulated up to three feet of new sludge. The E.P.A. suspects they will have to remove much of this, but at massive expense—a quarter to half a billion dollars—when it’s not clear whether or not the muck will just pile up again over the course of the next decade.

This is not the first time the Gowanus Canal has been host to ambitious projects and passionate environmental initiatives. As early as 1889, just over 20 years after the official canal opening, and with just four sewers dumping into it, a mayoral commission proposed stemming toxic degradation, defending the costs by asserting that “the condition in which [the canal] is allowed to exist is simply a disgrace to the city of Brooklyn.” Those proposals failed, as did many thereafter.

Even the more successful projects have achieved only partial—and usually dismal—victories. One of the most famous among them is the 1911 construction of Flushing Tunnel, built to pump clean water from the Buttermilk Channel (a short waterway between Brooklyn and Governor’s Island, and also the name of a restaurant in Carroll Gardens) into the Gowanus and push the fetid soup out to sea. But the tunnel has never operated properly. Even after a spirited renovation in 1999, a city report revealed that the pump, intended to provide 300 million gallons per day of fresh water, provided on average only 154 million. Having done little to improve water quality, save at the mouth of the pump, the tunnel is already slated for yet another round of renovations, which the city suspects will increase the force of the pump by only about 60 million gallons per day.

The mostly industrial and sparsely populated area around the Gowanus has never been a political priority, according to Hum, in part because “there’s never been a moment when the city could throw money around.”

“The will [for a cleanup] was always there,” said Katia Kelly, a Brooklyn blogger who has tracked the progress of the Gowanus efforts, “but there aren’t so many people living right on the shores of the canal. It was a lost land—really, as a community, we thought we had lost.”

Before the E.P.A. won the battle, there was a year-long clash between the agency and the Bloomberg administration, which opposed the Superfund designation on the grounds that it would drag on and stall development for over a decade. The city proposed an alternative cleanup plan designed to facilitate residential development on a shorter timeline. Developers promoted the idea of a flourishing and livable Gowanus, brought to fruition by the new residents themselves in an effort to make their long-blighted neighborhood more palatable.

It’s not just developers that see the canal that way. There are groups like the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Clubs that organize regular cleanup missions to tidy the streets and, paddling on the river, skim waste from the tops of the waters—they have attracted thousands to the cause. Others have pointed out with joy that there are some fish swimming in the canal, and have begun to engage in recreational fishing, vocally promoting an image of a relatively clean and healthy Gowanus.

Prominent among these believers is resident Salvatore “Buddy” Scotto, who believes the canal can become an urban Venice right now and promotes development of the area. Responding to the New York Post in 2009 during the first rumblings of Superfunding, Scotto said, “There’s no question the canal is clean enough now to support development.” He attacked the cleanup plan as a political tool employed by those who, in general, opposed development.

But the E.P.A. has made it abundantly clear that the problems of the Gowanus go far deeper than beautifying the streets. “Every time somebody flushes a toilet in Park Slope on a rainy day,” said Kelly, “it goes right into the canal,” dumping more used condoms, paper waste, and human feces (“floatables”) for the Dredgers to pick up.

And the fish, according to a 2004 study by the USACE, pop out from the Buttermilk Channel waters of the Flushing Tunnel and do not propagate. The waters are officially designated as too dangerous for recreation.

Oddly enough, the argument between the E.P.A. and the city ended before either side had totally clear plans, meaning that no one knows exactly what the E.P.A. is going to do.

“We avoid preselecting a remedy,” said Loney, adding that while some solutions have been tossed about based on preliminary data and analysis of pre-existing reports, the E.P.A.’s ultimate timeframe, price tag, and method remain unclear.

Any plan will have to involve dredging the recent massive accumulation of soupy sediment, and the eight to ten feet of unruly coal tar that lies under it. The layers below the coal also contain unhealthy materials, but that, say E.P.A. officials, can be capped and covered with healthier materials. But there is no clear solution on what do to with the dredged material, nor for how to deal with the continuing contamination seeping down from sewage lines and riverbed industrial and development sites.

This points to the severe limitations on the E.P.A.’s cleanup efforts. “Upland portions above the canal are not part of the Superfund site,” said Loney, “but they do impact the site.” The E.P.A. can clean the waters, but must rely on the city and developers to stymie the flow of sewage and chemicals. And that’s not the only issue. For example, coal tar, one of the key pollutants that developmentthreatens to add to the canal, can easily flow around a site’s retaining wall. The E.P.A. has not yet figured out what to do about that.

Kate Orff, Columbia University architecture and urban design professor and founding principal of SCAPE Landscape Architecture, suggests the restoration of native wetlands as a means of naturally beautifying the area while filtering out pollutants from the shore and helping to maintain the E.P.A.’s progress. Such plans, supported by USACE reports, also require upland actions. Also, said Orff, “that process takes time and coordination and management—things often in short supply in an urban real estate driven context.” The very forces necessitating a cleanup—although against their will—also appear to be the primary forces complicating any sort of truly comprehensive longterm solution.

The E.P.A.’s cleanup hinges on concurrent efforts by the city to reduce sewage overflow and toxin leakage and increase water flow down the canal. Loney remains hopeful, and said that the city has been cooperative thus far in E.P.A. cleanup efforts. But Kelly said that the city’s halt on rezoning the area for residential use is just an attempt “to be contradictory and to enact a self-fulfilling prophecy,” whereby restricted development limits the extent of the pressure to clean the canal. She and others also have said that developers like Toll Brothers are bluffing when they threaten to abandon the area, or at least that they are motivated by forces other than the stigma of a Superfund.

Even if the city does pull through and limit toxin seepage, estimates say it will only decrease sewage influx by 34 percent. And the increase in water quality, according to a study by Baruch College, could lead to a housing boom that would increase the residential population by up to 30 percent, effectively negating the sewage reduction and leaving the E.P.A. right where it started. At the very least, “the level of cleanup means that change will happen,” said Orff, “Superfund opens up alternative scenarios for interacting with the water.”

Which may require taking a deep breath.