After more than a century of toxic pollution, Brooklyn’s infamous Gowanus Canal is finally being cleaned up. This November, the Environmental Protection Agency kicked off the first phase of its plan to dredge the entire length of this industrial waterway, scooping out the thick layer of “black mayonnaise” which has settled at its bottom. A small fleet of barges and tugboats is now removing this noxious sediment, which is laced with heavy metals and carcinogenic chemicals.
Dredging and capping the Gowanus Canal is expected to take at least a decade to complete, and is just one part of the EPA’s larger Superfund cleanup process, which began in 2010. The canal’s coastline is also now being remediated to keep buried toxins from seeping out into the water, with workers excavating polluted soil and putting in new bulkhead barriers. The first phase of this cleanup is taking place at the northern end of the 1.8 mile canal, in its most densely populated area, giving local residents a close-up view of this $1.5 billion project.
The Gowanus Canal is situated in a former marshland between several residential neighborhoods, including Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, Park Slope and Red Hook. Though its shoreline is mostly home to industrial businesses and warehouses, there are dozens of houses located just a block away from its waters, and two luxury apartment towers, 363 Bond Street and 365 Bond, which were recently built on its coast. The first phase of the Superfund cleanup is taking place outside the windows of these apartments, next to their busy public promenade.
Here, children ride bikes just a few feet away from the dredging buckets, which are filled with poisonous sludge. Up the coast, at the popular barbecue restaurant Pig Beach, diners sit outside at picnic tables next to backhoes digging up polluted landfill. At the nearby Whole Foods Market, parents push strollers along a waterfront esplanade, past barges filled with putrid debris from the bottom of the canal. And on the bridges that cross over the canal, holiday shoppers with Christmas Trees pause to look out over the roiling waters.
The Gowanus Canal is one of the most polluted bodies of water in the United States, and the communities around it have been advocating for it to be cleaned for decades. The canal’s sediment – its notorious ‘black mayonnaise’ – is a lethal mix of oil, coal, pesticides, rotting debris, raw sewage, chemicals, and heavy metals, which includes arsenic, benzene, chromium, mercury, and lead. The canal’s waters are tainted by millions of gallons of sewage every year, which, in the 1970s, led to it being contaminated with typhoid, cholera and tuberculosis. In more recent years, it has been diagnosed with gonorrhea. The canal’s coastline has been poisoned by a century of industrial use, including chemical factories and manufactured gas plants, which left behind coal tar plumes that have sunk 153 feet underground.
Even on a regular day, the pollution of the Gowanus Canal is plainly visible, with its waters coated by rainbows of oil and plumes of brown fecal matter. During the cleanup process, the canal has become even more visibly rancid, with new sections of rotting sediment stirred up every day by the dredgers. Huge slicks of oil and debris float around their barges and tugboats, releasing an eye-watering stench of gasoline and rotten garbage.
Conducting a Superfund cleanup in a densely populated urban area presents numerous logistical challenges, and to ensure public safety, the EPA has installed a series of air monitoring stations near the dredging areas. “The canal releases contamination and smells every single day. And some days more than others. We did air monitoring to figure out if there was a risk there,” said Brian Carr, an assistant regional counsel at the EPA, during a recent meeting of the Gowanus Canal Community Advisory Group (CAG).
So far, the EPA has not noticed a significant increase in airborne toxins during the cleanup. “The sediment does have chemicals, and these things are being monitored,” said Christos Tsiamis, the senior project manager of the EPA cleanup, during the CAG meeting. “Whatever is releasing into the air should be caught by the air monitors that we have there… What I can say for sure is that no incidences of whatever chemicals might be coming out in the vapor phase have exceeded the health levels.” In the meantime, the EPA has banned fishing and canoeing near the active cleanup areas.
The first phase of dredging at the Gowanus Canal is expected to take at least three years to complete, but the city government and private developers are already moving ahead on their plans to transform its industrial landscape into a residential neighborhood filled with new glass towers. Real estate investors have spent hundreds of millions of dollars buying up polluted properties and demolishing warehouses along both sides of the canal, in anticipation of the city’s long-planned rezoning. Empty lots now line the shoreline, and new buildings are already rising.
The best place to view this future vision for the Gowanus Canal is also at its first dredging site, where the shoreline on both sides is owned by billionaire developers. The luxury apartments at 363 Bond Street and 365 Bond were built by Lightstone, a real estate company with a $6.5 billion portfolio. Across the canal, a new tower designed by internationally known architects Herzog & de Meuron is now rising in a heavily polluted former Brownfield site, as part of the Powerhouse Arts campus. This site once housed a long-abandoned power station known as The Batcave, which will soon become a contemporary art center founded by Joshua Rechnitz, the wealthy philanthropist who bought the site for $7 million in 2012.
The Gowanus Canal has suffered from hundreds of years of neglect, and the neighborhoods surrounding it have lived with its toxicity for decades. For them, the Superfund cleanup is a clear victory for the environment.
“To see it being dredged up is, to me, a visual of everything we have been fighting for. It’s an acknowledgement of the fact that an entire community has come together to support the EPA,” said Katia Kelly, a Carroll Gardens resident and a member of the CAG, who has been advocating for the Superfund process for more than a decade. “I think there is an immense amount of pride that we were able to see the ‘black mayonnaise’ finally be removed from the bottom of the canal, because we fought so hard for it.”
At the same time, the fact that the canal will likely never be completely restored to a natural habitat safe for, say, swimming, raises some serious questions about any future plans to build along its shoreline.
“Our Gowanus Canal is so polluted that there is no way we are ever, ever going to clean it up. We shouldn’t call these cleanups, they are containment of toxic material,” said Kelly, who opposes the city’s current plans to rezone the neighborhood.
The proposed rezoning would allow new residential towers, some up to 22 stories high, to be built on top of permanently polluted industrial sites. “We are just starting the cleanup. Can’t we wait another 10 years, to make sure we don’t put people in danger?” she added. “The rezoning should be done carefully… The city shouldn’t go ahead and put people in harm’s way, in the way they are intending.”