Barges and bridges: Flurry of activity coming soon to Gowanus Canal

"It's like D-Day."

June 26, 2019 Scott Enman
A crane operator floating on a barge on the Gowanus Canal lifts the machine’s arm out of the water after dropping sand to the bottom of the canal.
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An influx of activity is slated to take place in and along the Gowanus Canal in the coming months, as dormant bridges are raised and numerous barges maneuver along the narrow waterway in preparation for a massive cleanup of the canal.

Brian Carr, assistant regional counsel at the Environmental Protection Agency, told residents on Tuesday at a Community Advisory Group meeting that the work, part of the canal’s overall cleanup, would involve replacing bulkheads — the borders between the shore and the water — and removing accumulated sediment.

The bulkhead work is on a “theoretical schedule,” but it must be completed by June 2020, when dredging of the toxic canal is expected to begin. The entire process, Carr said, is extremely complex.

“I don’t know if there’s anything in the country that is quite this complicated,” he said, adding: “The team could work 24 hours a day, and we still couldn’t keep up. … It’s like D-Day.”

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He stressed that on top of the looming rezoning, the EPA would have to work out how several barges, all of different sizes, could pass each other along the 100-foot-wide waterway. Plus, the federal agency is responsible for ensuring that businesses are not interrupted.

Cleaning of the canal involves maintaining combined sewage overflow — a mixture of storm runoff and human waste — with two massive $1.2 billion retention tanks and dredging contaminated deposit that has accumulated due to industrial and sewer discharges.

While some may have assumed the cleanup was already ongoing, EPA was only performing a series of tests, or pilot projects, to determine the most effective methods for eventually cleaning the entire canal.

The dredging and capping pilot program finished in July of last year, and the tanks are currently in the design phase.

The 1.8-mile noxious waterway was declared a federal Superfund site nearly a decade ago in 2010, but the actual remediation process, starting with the dredging, is not slated to begin until June of next year.

New York City is also required to remove roughly 10,000 cubic yards of polluted material that has collected in the upper part of the canal over the years. It has been required to perform that action since 1983, but never did.

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