The Gowanus Canal Cleanup: An update

October 29, 2015 By Scott Enman Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The Gowanus Canal. Eagle photo by Rob Abruzzese
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The cleanup of the notorious Gowanus Canal—referred to by some as arguably the dirtiest waterway in America — is on the verge of yet another delay.

The saga between the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the city and the Gowanus community has been ongoing ever since the EPA finalized its plan to clean up the Gowanus Canal Superfund site in September 2013.

Superfund, which was created by Congress in 1980, gives the EPA the resources and ability to investigate and clean up polluted sites.

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The goals of Superfund according to the EPA are to:

  1. “Protect human health and the environment by cleaning up polluted sites.

  2. Involve communities in the Superfund process.

  3. Make responsible parties pay for work performed at Superfund sites.”


The plan to clean the Gowanus Canal, which is estimated to cost $506 million, includes dredging contaminated deposit at the bottom of the canal that has accumulated as a result of industrial and sewer discharges.

The plan also includes strategies to prevent combined sewer overflows, or CSOs.

The latter part of the plan concerning the CSOs is the source of contention and could delay the cleanup process by 2 to 3 1/2 years, according to EPA officials.

That delay, however, can be avoided if the city agrees to build a “retention tank” at the Douglass & Degraw or “Double D” pool in Thomas Greene Park in Gowanus.  

EPA’s Public Information Officer Elias Rodriguez explained the purpose of the retention tanks to the Brooklyn Eagle.

“When there’s a lot of rain,” said Rodriguez, “the storm water in the sewage pipes combines with sewage underneath the sidewalk, and when there’s too much capacity, it overflows.

“So the idea behind the retention tanks is that when there’s a large rainfall, the water, instead of being discharged, is actually retained in these 8 million gallon tanks until the rain event is over and capacity is lowered and the excess water is gradually discharged. You therefore have less of a chance that you’re going to have raw sewage overflowing into the canal.”

The city submitted a report to the EPA on June 30 on more than a dozen possible locations for the tank. Out of those twelve sites, the EPA narrowed it down to two.

One of the locations is at the aforementioned pool while the second is at the head of the canal.

The city’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), however, opposed the EPA’s recommendation to install the retention tank in the public park, preferring instead to build the tank on the location at the head of the canal.

The problem with the spot at the head of the canal, however, is that it’s on private property, and it could take years of legal work to obtain the right to build there.

“EPA believes the park can be cleaned up within one year and immediately following the park cleanup the tank could be constructed in the excavated area within three years,” says Rodriguez.

“With the head of the canal location, it’s a question of how long the legal process could take to take possession of that property… but we’re estimating it would take 2 to 3 1/2  more years to secure ownership of the property, assuming that they do it through eminent domain.”

For the tank to be installed at the “Double D” pool, the pool would be required to close.  

Rodriguez said that while both “the EPA and the city are very sensitive to the fact that the community does not want to lose use of the pool,” the pool, which is already on top of contaminated land, would have to be dug up and cleaned in the future anyway.  

“The issue with the pool,” said Rodriguez, “is that it’s sited on a location that has contamination underneath. So it’s an eventuality that at some point the contamination underneath the pool will have to be remediated, and that’s going to require digging it up.”

There are, however, temporary pools that have in the past been installed when pools are under construction. The community would therefore still have a place to swim, even during the building process.

“Of course, both the city and the EPA want to be as least disruptive as possible in terms of impacts to the community, traffic and time. All of those are considerations that need to be evaluated.”

“Both locations have advantages and disadvantages,” said Rodriguez. “Whatever decision we make is going to be a balance of interest and a trade off by nature.”  

Joseph Alexiou, a journalist, historian and author of “Gowanus: Brooklyn’s Curious Canal,” weighed in on the battle between the EPA and the city.

“What the city needs to be doing is going along with the EPA’s plan to clean up the canal,” said Alexiou. “But what the city is doing is slowing down the process by arguing over the details of the cleanup… Every step of the way, from the conception of the superfund in Gowanus in 2010 up until this moment, the city has done all that it can to make difficult and slow down this process so it can maintain some kind of control over it.

“The city is getting in the way of the experts at the EPA, the engineers that have studied this disaster,” Alexiou added.

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