It’s About Time! EPA begins removal of debris from toxic Gowanus Canal

Debris Removal Is Preliminary Step in Gowanus Canal Cleanup

October 27, 2016 By Scott Enman Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The Gowanus Canal. Eagle file photo by Rob Abruzzese
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After several decades of neglect, the Gowanus Canal — referred to by some as arguably the dirtiest waterway in America — took a small step in the right direction on Monday as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began to remove debris from the waterway.

The 100-foot-wide, 1.8-mile noxious canal was declared a Superfund site in 2010, and now, after more than six years, it is finally starting to get cleaned up.  

The canal’s turning basin, located at the intersection of Fourth Street and Third Avenue, is filled with underwater debris that has accumulated there for centuries. If the debris is not removed, the wreckage will prohibit barges from entering the waterway to dredge contaminated sediment at the bottom.

The plan to clean the Gowanus Canal — which is estimated to cost $506 million —includes not only dredging contaminated deposit that has accumulated because of industrial and sewer discharges, but also installing two 8 million-gallon sewage and storm water retention tanks to prevent combined sewer overflow. The actual dredging of the toxic sediment will not begin until 2017.

The ongoing debris removal will take place over the next three to four weeks on weekdays from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.

EPA used sonar equipment — similar to technology used by submarines and boats to do underwater mapping — to identify debris at the bottom of the basin. Notable debris included two boat wrecks, eight support pilings, a tree and 25 other objects that are larger than five feet across. The sonar also revealed several tires, shopping carts and an abandoned art installation.

With the help of the State Historic Preservation Office, the EPA determined that none of the shipwrecks are historically significant.

After the debris is removed from the canal, it will be sorted into recyclable and general landfill material groups. Any sediment removed will be disposed of at a commercial facility offsite, according to the EPA.

“We are pleased to see the start of debris removal, which is part of EPA’s overall plan to clean up the Gowanus Canal Superfund site,” EPA Public Information Officer Elias Rodriguez told the Brooklyn Eagle. “Removing contaminants of concern from the Gowanus Canal will take many years, but today is evidence that we are making progress.”  

It’s Better than Nothing

Although the debris removal is a positive preliminary step toward the eventual cleanup of the Gowanus Canal, the waterway should never have gotten polluted in the first place, according to Riverkeeper Patrol Boat Capt. John Lipscomb.

“It’s wonderful to know that progress is being made and that the EPA is stepping up to take on the Gowanus, which is famous all across the country as a notoriously polluted water body,” Lipscomb told the Eagle. “As I say often say, the EPA is our knight in shining armor.

“But the other part that has to be said is that it’s shameful that the city can’t seem to manage its own house,” he continued. “It’s shameful that New York City has failed the Gowanus completely and that it takes a federal agency to come inside our city and take care of our dirty laundry.”

Riverkeeper is a member-supported watchdog organization that calls itself “New York’s clean water advocate” and whose mission, according to its website, is “to protect the environmental, recreational and commercial integrity of the Hudson River and its tributaries.” Lipscomb has monitored the Gowanus Canal for more than a decade.

“The neglect and abandonment by the city is visible in many, many ways,” Lipscomb said. “One is that these wrecks were allowed to persist. In spite of the fact that the city is promoting development all along the Gowanus and is promoting it as a future Venice in Brooklyn, it hasn’t done anything for the water body and is leaving it to the EPA.

“It’s an abysmal indictment of the city,” he continued. “The city will spend all kinds of money on the southwest side of Manhattan to make a promenade, but with the Gowanus, they let it go.” 

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