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Where is the Gowanus Going Today? Glad You Asked

We are on the ”Path” to a cleanup of this highly polluted, and yes, dangerous Gowanus Canal, and we, the community, EPA and the involved constituents are on schedule.  The “Path”  started  back in the 19th century when the Gowanus area wetlands were drained and over time an 18 mile industrial-use canal came into existence. From about 1869 until the 1960’s the Gowanus Canal was one of the most used industrial and highly polluted canals in the country. Efforts to clean it up have been seen in the press since the early 1900s. In 1906 a study from MIT was published on the topic, as well.

The Canal’s notoriety is well established. The oil sheen from pollutants had given it the nickname, Lavender Lake.  And the odor associated with storm water runoff and CSOs especially during the warm months of the year have given it a variety of other names which will not be listed here.

For additional information on the history, please, visit the EPA website for the Gowanus Canal Superfund Site,

December 12, 2008, the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation’s Commissioner (“Pete”) Alexander Grannis, sent a letter to USEPA Region 2 asking that EPA Region 2 take over the cleanup of the Gowanus Canal and to declare it a Superfund site by placing it on the National Priorities List. EPA  Region 2 took over the effort.  The Canal was placed on the National Priorities List in 2010, making it a federal superfund site.  More comments (about 1300) were sent in when public comment was open than in the history of any Superfund site.  The comments were overwhelming for designating it a Superfund site.

The EPA placed the Canal on the Superfund list in March, 2010. A Community Advisory Group (CAG) was formed.  It has been active since Superfunding took place.  It is the largest in the history of Superfund, and certainly is one of the most if not the most active CAG ever to exist. (Meetings are open to the public, and are often listed on the Sierra Club, NYG Group website, as well as on EPA Gowanus Canal website.)

On September 27, 2013 EPA Region 2 published it Record of Decision (ROD) which describes the cleanup method selected.  For more information on all of the intervening activities and documents from 2010 until ROD was published, such as the Remedial Investigation (RI), Feasibility Study (FS) and the Proposed Remedial Action Plan (PRAP), please see the EPA website shown above.

The cost of the cleanup will be borne by the polluters.  The estimated cost is $506 million. The two most significant polluters are National Grid (from the early Brooklyn Union Gas coal gasification sites on the Canal) and New York City.  Because NYC is one of the primary polluters, it is true that the cost paid by NYC will ultimately come out of our, the taxpayers’ pockets.  In January 2013 EPA sent out 31 letters to potentially responsible parties (PRPs), including National Grid, New York City, Consolidated Edison, General Services Administration and requests for information to over 70 other companies that may have had a part in polluting the Canal.   Those ultimately designated as responsible parties will be paying for what will be calculated as their share of the pollution.  One person described the legal-financial negotiations as putting a bunch of cats in a room fighting it out to decide the pecking order, that is, who will pay what amount, what portion of the costs of the cleanup have been attributed to the pollution from that entity

Right now we are moving into what is called the Remedial Design phase, which is expected to last until 2016: development of detailed engineering plans that will be used to implement the chosen remedy described in the ROD. The cleanup will be in 3 phases.  Phase 1, the upper canal up to 3rd St., Phase 2, the middle canal up to 9th St. and finally, the lower canal up to the Erie Basin.

The ROD proposes the following actions: Removing contaminated sediment from the bottom of the canal by dredging, capping the dredged areas, implementing controls undertaken by NYC DEP to prevent combined sewer overflows interfering or undermining the cleanup. These controls will include building 2 retention tanks to prevent extensive discharge of untreated sewage during storm events.  The ROD also includes excavating and restoring in part the former 1st St. and 5th St. Basins, treating all of the dredged materials at an off-site facility.  Approximately 587,000 cubic yards of material will be removed.

At the upland sites, as they are known, National Grid is cleaning up, removing and isolating (hopefully) what cannot be removed of the highly toxic coal tars from the gasification plants run by Brooklyn Union Gas.

The canal will be capped by means of a multilayer cap, a treatment layer that will remove contamination that might well up from the stabilized native sediment layer and below that the contaminated native sediment that cannot be removed. Above the treatment layer will be a sand and gravel isolation layer, above that a gravel armor layer that will actually seal the layers below.  Above that the habitat layer will exist.

The CAG will continue to press for an outcome that will make the canal both fishable and swimmable.  These are not listed in the Objective portion of the ROD, which seeks only water quality that is suitable for Recreation such as kayaking and boating.

The projected completion dates for the cleanup are 2016 for the upper portion, 2018 for the middle portion, and 2020 for the lower portion of the canal.

These dates are in conformance with the projections by Walter Mugdan, Division Director of the Superfund program in Region 2 EPA.  From the very beginning he said 12 to 14 years.  After the cleanup is completed, EPA projects that 5 year reviews will take place to ensure that the site remains cleaned up.

Tentative CAG meeting schedule: January 28, February 25, location TBA

(NYC DOT meeting on 4th Street Cul-de-Sac Permeable Layers, A Public Informational Meeting, Monday, Dec. 2, Old Stone House, 336 3rd St. between 4th and 5th Ave.  (near 4thand 9th St. Subway station F train and Union St. station R train)

For more information, or to get involved, E-Mail