Back to writings

After 150 years of pollution, the Gowanus Canal will be cleaned up

This story was first published on The Excelsior

By Marco Poggio

In a documentary dated 1998, an interviewed man says to remember calling the Gowanus Canal “Perfume Creek” or “Lavender Creek.” With time, though, sarcasm has given way to resignation.

Many of the citizens of the neighborhoods around which the Gowanus Canal is built, namely Red Hook, Carroll Gardens, Gowanus and Boerum Hill, have learned to ignore the putrid smell of the Gowanus Canal. Some people learned how to ignore it completely, like one would do with an old scar.

Yet, the Gowanus Canal does not disappear from the landscape of Brooklyn. On the contrary, it gets more and more polluted as times goes on. The contamination with PCB, an highly toxic chemical compound responsible for causing cancer, and other liquid and volatile pollutants, including a wide number of metal and pesticides, have turned this 1.8 mile long waterway into a stagnant creek of death.

“The issue is that the sewage overflows,” says Lizzie Oleskar, an activist and homeowner living nearby the Gowanus Canal. “The whole sewage situation has not really be addressed by the city,” she continues.

Due to a conflict of interests that kept the City of New York passive for decades, preventing from finding a solution for the Gowanus Canal, the State of New York decided to intervene by involving the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

In 2010, then, the Gowanus Canal was then added to the National Priorities List of the agency, and declared a Superfund site.

The Superfund Program started out in 1980 after the discovery, two years before, of high quantities of toxic waste in a Niagara Falls, NY. The program was established by Congress to identify areas that are subject to high pollution, with the purpose of cleaning them up and make them livable.

Since its involvement began, the EPA has engaged in a joined effort, together with the people living nearby the canal, to put in action a definitive plan for the rescue of the Gowanus canal.

The interaction between the EPA and the people was mediated by several public meetings happened at local level and a system of submission of comments.

In addition to the public meeting held by EPA, other groups called Community Advisory Group (CAG) have been created to allow the continuous interactions between locals and the IPA as the project for the clean up of the canal goes on. The CAG are independent groups and are intended to be most direct mechanism for locals to interact with EPA in addressing concerns related to the operations in the canal.

Last September 30, during a press conference that took place in Redhook, on the banks the Gowanus Canal, the EPA regional administrator Judith Enck announced that a final plan for the clean up of the canal has been decided. Enck said the cleanup will take eight to ten years, and it will cost $506,000,000.

The basic operations on the canal will consist in the removal of the contaminated sediment on the bottom of the canal, and a subsequent renovation of the sewage flushing system, which Enck said will help the water to remain clean after the polluting agents been removed.

The cleanup of the Gowanus Canal will certainly not be easy to implement, as the waterway has been under polluting agents for 150 years.

“At other Superfund sites where EPA works, all over the region, we typically measure toxins in parts-per-million, parts-per-billion, sometimes in parts-per-trillion,” Enck said. “Here, we measure toxins in parts-per-hundred” she then added, trying to put into context the severe level of pollution of the canal.

The press conference, to which both Federal and City official were present, including Brooklyn Borough President, Marty Markowitz, revealed the political significance lying beyond the cleanup plan. The Gowanus Canal has become, in fact, a stage where Federal and City politics are at play, often clashing with each other.

On one side, the city government has expressed its hostility towards declaring Gowanus Canal a Superfund area, since that decreases significantly the value of the land.

The neighborhoods of Red Hook and Carroll Garden are undergoing a rapid development. In recent years a transformation has been turning a prominently industrial area into a convenient place to move in and open new businesses, since other neighborhoods in Brooklyn have become too expensive to live in and work.

The city administration has long sided with real estates in the intent of attracting new investors to facilitate the process of revaluation of the area around the canal.

The problem of the pollution of the canal is a real thorn in the side for the city officials, who have been called out by the public opinion for not addressing the issue. Now that the EPA and the federal government are involved, a contention has begun over who will actually carry on the operations in the canal.

The City of New York, one of the entities held responsible for the actual condition of the Gowanus Canal, together with a series of manufactured factories, has decided to collaborate with EPA in the project, with the intent of moving on from the negligent reputation it has long maintained in front of the public opinion in regards of the canal.

However, at the same time, the city administration has been critical on some of the features of the project presented by the EPA. One object of contention is whether some retention tanks will be installed on the canal, to ensure the control of the pollutants. The Bloomberg administration deemed the tanks unnecessary.

Though, at the press conference of last September 30, congresswoman Nydia Velasquez, said firmly that the EPA has the power to overrun any city decision, and that the cleanup project will take place as decided.

The cleanup of the Gowanus Canal is not only a matter of political influence. At stake are not only costs and timelines, but also and especially the health of the citizens of the neighborhoods around the canal.

The cleanup will involve, in fact, a series of procedures that could be potentially harmful for those living nearby. For instance, scraping of the bottom of the canal will produce a huge quantity of toxic waste, which then will have to be disposed.

During an initial phase of the project, there has been a proposal for creating a burial site in Red Hook that would host part of the waste. Serious concerns among the community have persuaded the EPA officials to make changes in that plan, ensuring that the waste pit be built somewhere else, in order to ease the burden on the communities already in discomfort because of the canal.

Although the cleanup project seems to be earnestly conceived to improve the quality of living in this area of Brooklyn, it is not immune from severe criticism. Some have complained that the cleanup will cost them discomfort that is not worth going through.

Some people fear they will have to give up the swimming pool located between Douglas and DeGraw streets, which is believed it will have to be closed to make space for a cistern that would prevent the sewage to overflow and contaminate the water of the canal during heavy rains. It is not clear whether many of the concerns around the cleanup project of the Gowanus Canal are justified or are rather the product of political manipulation happening at the grassroots level.

Back to writings