Troubled Waters

No Clean-Up for the Gowanus.

By Jim Knipfel

As more factories began rising on the shores surrounding New York harbor during the Industrial Revolution of the late 19th century, the city decided something needed to be done to both ease the increasing shipping congestion in the harbor and improve access to the factories themselves. The result was the Gowanus Canal, a 1.8 mile stretch of manmade industrial waterway that snakes through West Central Brooklyn. Once completed, the Gowanus allowed barges to reach those factories and warehouses that by then were beginning to move inland, as well as giving those same factories a place to dump their chemical runoff.

Over a century later, the Gowanus is widely and proudly hailed as the Most Polluted Waterway in America, its iridescent green and still waters, as well as the thick sludge at the bottom, a heady stew of heavy metals, oil, industrial runoff, human and animal waste, and countless other toxins.

Over the years the canal has become the stuff of legend, from stories about the packs of wild dogs roaming its banks and the mysterious lights that appear over the canal on warm summer nights to frightened whispers about the unnatural life forms that began emerging from the Gowanus slime in the late 90s. In 1950 a large shark found its way into the canal and lurked about for a few hours until, as locals lined the banks to watch, a team of NYPD sharpshooters took position on the Union Street bridge and pumped hundreds of rounds of ammunition into the water, eventually killing it. In more recent years a few stray dolphins have likewise wandered into the canal, but succumbed to the toxic stew before the NYPD could be summoned. And in 2015, in order to once again call public attention to the dire state of the canal, environmentalist and daredevil Christopher Swain climbed into the water and actually swam the canal end to end, though little has been heard from him since.

For almost half a century now—since even before the term "superfund site" was coined—the city has been promising it really was going to finally get down to the hard work of cleaning up the canal. Despite several plans proposed and debated buy the Environmental Protection Agency and the city's own Department of Environmental Protection, nothing happened. Even after most of the factories had closed down and the barge traffic on the canal dwindled, conditions in the Gowanus only grew worse, thanks in part to the Combined Sewer Overflow, or CSO. Given the way the city's crumbling sewer system was designed, whenever a hard rain falls on western Brooklyn, the contents of the storm drains and sewer pipes flow together before being pumped directly into the Gowanus. In the case of a particularly bad rain—Hurricane Sandy is an extreme but apt example—the swelling of the canal has often sent the CSO backing into hundreds of area homes and businesses.

Finally in 2013, the EPA and DEP agreed on an estimated $506 million plan to dredge the federal superfund site. City Hall even began releasing artist's renderings of the pleasant parks and picnic areas that would line the canal as soon as the work was completed and the water was fresh and clean and full of fish.

Then once again, nothing happend.

Three years after the deal was struck, despite repeated use of the term "urgency," it seems the city is at last taking it's first baby steps toward the massive clean up. This spring, landscape architect Susannah C. Drake will be opening what she has termed New York's first Sponge Park, an experimental 2100-square foot patch of green located on the southernmost banks of the Gowanus near 2nd Street. Sponge Park consists of a specially-selected mix of soil and plants (sedge grass, asters, and Rosa rugosa,) designed, in theory, to filter the CSO and soak up the toxins before they have a chance to flow into the canal. While it will do little to improve existing conditions in the Gowanus, it it's hope that at least in some small way Sponge Park will help prevent things, at least at that end of the canal, from getting much worse.

While the DEP waits to see how well the organic filter really works, a slightly bigger step is also underway. Sort of. In mid-April the EPA and DEP came to a preliminary agreement for the locations of two 8,000 gallon storage tanks each designed to hold the CSO following a heavy rain, allowing them to discharge the overflow back into the canal in a more controlled manner after the swollen waters subside. One of the CSO storage tanks would be located on butler Street near the head of the canal, close to both the Gowanus pumping station and the ironically named Flushing Tunnel. The second proposed location would be at the other end of the canal, a city-owned property near 2nd Street and 5th Avenue, not far from Sponge Park. According to the plan, the two combined tanks could reduce the amount of CSO flowing into the canal by an estimated 50 to 75 percent.

There's only one problem. As it stands, the present agreement says nothing about the design, construction, or installation of the tanks themselves, and offers no time frame. Sean Dixon, a lawyer for the environmental watchdog group Riverkeeper, recently told the Brooklyn Eagle that all the agreement does is agree on the locations, but even that is the subject of some debate.

Initially the EPA urged the city to place the first tank beneath the pool in Thomas Greene Park. National Grid, the natural gas company, was already ordered to dig up the location in order to clean up their own toxic problem, so the hole would be ready made, making it the quickest and cheapest solution. The city balked at this plan, however, saying they were reluctant to take any open park space (regardless how already polluted) away from the neighborhood children. The agreed-upon Butler Street location has a few problems of its own as well, as the site is presently private property, requiring the city to once more resort to Eminent Domain to claim it as their own. Such an effort would likely result in a legal battle that could drag on for several years, and when it was over, even if the city won, according to Dixon, they would still be left with nothing but a large hole in the ground, the storage tank itself little more than a nice idea.

As that debate totters on, and as the EPA waits for the end of a comment period before signing off for real on the plan, another debate is bubbling at the other end of the Gowanus.

The Union Street bridge, which spans the canal connecting the Gowanus neighborhood with Carroll Gardens, is itself about a century old. Since it had to accommodate the shipping traffic on the canal, it was originally constructed as a drawbridge, though it hasn't been opened since 2013. Although any number of makeshift and piecemeal repairs have been made to the bridge over the decades, the time has finally come, it's been decided, to replace it completely. The question now, and a question that will be put to a public vote shortly, is whether or not to make the replacement a drawbridge as well, or a fixed single-span design. The single-span design would be far quicker and cheaper to build, taking roughly only two years to complete. It would, however, also require the city to cite Eminent Domain to acquire the necessary property, currently privately owned. A drawbridge would be far more expensive and take at least three years to build, so from an economic and efficiency standpoint, the decision might seem a simple one, especially when voters would be footing the bill.

The problem is this. When and if the actual dredging of the Gowanus ever does get underway, the safest and easiest way to do that would be to use barges to scrape up the silt from the canal floor. But barges would require a drawbridge to make their way up and down the canal. If the cheaper single span option was built, it would essentially cut off a large section of the canal from the cleanup operation, meaning the dredge work would need to be undertaken with trucks, which would then be hauling all that toxic waste through the streets of several residential neighborhoods en route to, well, wherever they plan to dump it.

In short, however the present debates sort themselves out, after some five decades worth of handwringing and well-intentioned promises, it will likely be another decade at least before anything apart from Sponge Park actually gets done to clean up the canal, meaning we'll have an even longer wait for those proposed picnic areas.

Published May 23rd, 2016

Jim Knipfel is the author of Slackjaw, The Blow-Off, These Children Who Come at You With Knives, and several other books.