The Gowanus Canal will never be clean

New development will ensure the canal mantains its reputation as "The Lavender Lake" far into the future.

January 17, 2020 Joseph Alexiou
The Gowanus Canal. Eagle file photo by Rob Abruzzese
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The first time a Brooklynite formally complained about the raw sewage that had plagued his Gowanus Canal-side real estate investment, the man wrote a strongly worded letter to the common council of Brooklyn, claiming that the stench “injured the health of his wife” and “killed his father in law.” A local alderman by the last name Greene stood up and said he knew the land and this man, and if he took the city to court the man would win —”I wouldn’t take this land as a present,” said Alderman Greene. The year was 1861.

Since this meeting that predates the Civil War we’ve had dozens of mayors and probably hundreds of thousands of thunderstorms in this region. Perhaps shocking to Brooklynites today is that, now, 158 years later, the city has not yet finished cleaning the Gowanus Canal. Chances are it never will.

Lining its bottom is millions of cubic feet of toxic black mayonnaise, a combination of coal tar and sewage that sticks to the bottom of the canal at a depth of up to 10 feet thick. Yes, toxic pollution is a major problem in the Gowanus; it is why the EPA has made its formal presence. Yet into the Gowanus’ waters, even today, pour 250-350 million gallons of untreated raw sewage annually, particularly when it rains.

Known as combined sewage overflow, or CSO, this open sewer is the result of an 1846 sewer design. Ironically, Brooklyn’s was the first engineer-planned urban sewer system in America. But because this Victorian design included rainwater pipes and wastewater pipes that combine before entering treatment systems, during periods of heavy rain the combined sewer system spews its CSO into 12 different outfalls along the canal. This runoff has been known to contain numerous pathogens, including e. Coli, gonococcus, typhoid, and cholera, all exposed to the open air. Treatment systems in the Victorian era were known as the Bay and the Ocean, which led to the many infectious disease crises we associate with that era.

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The confusing civic reality here is that the EPA superfund has nothing to do with water contamination per se, at least when it’s about pathogens and organic waste. Water quality is regulated by the Clean Water Act of 1974, which is administered by state and local governments. In short, normally the sewer system would remain entirely in the purview of the city of New York.

Not surprising to some, the runoff is also tainted by the toxic waste lining New York City’s streets: car exhaust byproducts, spilled chemicals and sources unknown. Usually when a waterway reaches a toxicity level measurable in parts per billion it’s cause for alarm; in the Gowanus the contamination is measurable in parts per million to parts per hundred. This is much the same as it has been since the 1890s. The city of Brooklyn was supposed to have fixed it back then but obviously did not. The city of New York still hasn’t either, and they appear to have no intention to do so.

There is a troubling pattern to the civic efforts to fix the canal across history: The city identifies a water movement or flooding problem, orders an engineer to design a fix and then balks at the price, using whatever excuse there may be — war, an election or a fiscal crisis. Then they find an engineer or someone less qualified to do the job for cheaper and with less work, which is exactly what gets executed. After the job is done, within a decade but usually less, it becomes clear that the fix is ineffective and often makes the problem worse. Those responsible then throw up their hands and back away quietly, hoping that the next generation of decisionmakers will fix it.

Historically, the landowning industrialists and developers had a hand in the decision making throughout the process — and to this day the canal spouts toxic waste and raw sewage directly into the bay of New York. Today, once again, developers are openly lobbying for a zoning change that will allow up to 30-story buildings to be constructed in a flood zone that’s also the site of major toxic waste deposits.

In today’s EPA Superfund cleanup, fixes proscribed under the 2013 EPA Record of Decision include capturing the combined sewage overflow before it illegally pollutes the canal, removing deposits of toxic waste from the canal bed and preventing any recontamination from the land surrounding the canal. None of these will actually be 100 percent effective. Quite simply, the cost of totally obliterating the human-created pollution is so astronomical and the scale of work required so enormous that no politician could ever attempt it. Even the EPA’s environmental engineering guidelines says the the Superfund cannot and should not create cleanup goals that are impossible or too expensive: The point is to fix as much of the problem as possible in a scientific way; not to cut corners and ignore the source of the problems instead of hoping for a grand scale of resources to present itself like a civic Aladdin’s lamp.

Yet this is the city’s approach, despite being legally bound to follow the guidelines as set by the EPA engineers, as dictated by CERCLA, the law laying out Superfund procedures.

Because the city is identified as the biggest polluter of the canal, they are fiscally responsible for the cleanup and most of the design, but the EPA is the regulatory body from which they take their cues. Thus the body in charge of paying for and executing the massive project answer to the EPA, and over the past decade the city has flexed whatever muscles it has to fight anything about the cleanup that isn’t their idea: The EPA proscription to solve CSOs are two multi-million gallon retention tanks; first the city refused them, then denied the validity of the EPA science that showed the presence of toxic waste in the sewer water runoff (a fact that gives the EPA jurisdiction over the sewers). This was during the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg; at the same time, the local councilmember representing the Gowanus region was current Mayor Bill de Blasio.

After fighting the tanks until their construction was signed into law, Bloomberg’s Department of Environmental Protection proposed 86 different potential tank sites in the area, most of which were privately owned. The EPA had proposed two public sites, citing cost and ease of construction. The city, after fighting the tanks, budgeted more than a billion dollars for just the tank portion of the cleanup, even though the entire project was budgeted at $500 million by the EPA. The city enacted eminent domain to purchase a building many locals found unnecessary and a great expense, and plan to take over a warehouse currently used as a film studio to serve as a “staging area.”

In the past two years, de Blasio’s DEP has proposed alternate tank designs (including replacing the entire project with a one-ended “tunnel”) that have used up months of additional time with no time spent on the proscribed project, and more than $30 million in public funds devoted to an alternate plan that nobody asked the city to pursue, and was just rejected by the EPA for a long list of reasons. On Nov. 26, regional administrator Peter Lopez sent the DEP a stern letter, requesting they expedite the design of the tanks:

“Earlier in the process of discussing the potential merits of the tunnel proposal, I was given the impression that the City’s work on both tanks was fully proceeding in parallel with efforts related to the tunnel concept. I have come to understand that little progress has been made with regard to the OH-007 tank during the intervening months while the tunnel proposal was under consideration and ask you to move forward with this work without further delay. I reiterate my statement in EPA’sSeptember 20th letter that we examine adaptive strategies to quickly move forward as expeditiously as possible with these remedy components.”

Hanging in the shadow of this 160-year-old problem is the proposed Gowanus neighborhood rezone, a grand plan that actually predates Mayor Bill de Blasio’s affordable housing initiative to a Bloomberg-era deal. It includes building 30-story affordable residential buildings on one of the most polluted toxic waste sites in the city, Public Place, also known as the National Grid city and the Citizens MGP plant site. The site is also a flood zone. It’s not evident exactly why, but the city has been gunning to update this zoning for many years — perhaps before the completion of the cleanup. The affordable housing argument is the main crux of this initiative. But it’s not immediately clear why, since human feces and used condoms float daily past some of the expensive new real estate.

One answer is because people will live anywhere they can in New York because the rent is so high. Another is that we really do need the housing — perhaps so much so that it’s worth putting some 800 people in harm’s way during a major weather event. What is certain is that the developers want it, and now, before any further cleanup issues arise.

If history is a useful predictor of how politicians address infrastructure and environmental issues surrounding the canal, then we can accurately guess that city was never going to follow guidelines to begin with.

Not because the people involved are monsters who don’t like a clean environment, but because they fall prey to the same forces that have always called all the shots in this city: the civic power brokers and real estate developers. It’s never in anybody’s best fiscal interest to clean the canal as much as it is to make use of the land around it. And because developers today control a truly disproportionate power in the zoning, construction and even who gets affordable housing, it is their dominance that guarantees the canal will never be clean; it would appear that they’re not going away.

When Daniel Richards, a 19th-century Red Hook-based landowner and creator of the game-changing, large-scale commercial port the Atlantic Docks, began planning the Gowanus creek expansion into a combination of drain, shipping lane, and sewer outlet, he employed a well respected engineer, Major David Douglass, to draft some designs. He came up with two detailed ideas; a canal shaped like a piece of wire bent in half, with a system of locks to create current flow. Another was a canal that continued straight through to the Brooklyn Navy yard, also to provide a system to remove the sediment that would absolutely plague a tidal estuary with no current flow.

Maj. Douglass’s price tag in 1846 for the project was than $366,740 , approximately $250 million in today’s dollars. The council and Richards balked at this price, so Richards, a former country store clerk turned entrepreneur with grammar school education, took it upon himself to design and commission drawings of an industrial canal and sewer drain, mostly as we know it today. He also got himself elected as alderman of the Sixth Ward in 1848, the same year he presented his plan for the much reduced price of $86,223. As for the sediment buildup, he claimed the tidal movement into the bay would be enough to get rid of the “mud, dirty water, and filth.” Digging began in 1856, and 1861, at least a decade before the canal was finished, the stench had already purportedly killed at least one person’s father-in-law. His plan moved forward, at least at first, and his design remains the basis for the canal today.

We are still paying for Richard’s hubris (side note, Richards was soon later voted out of office after it was revealed that he was giving overstuffed kickback contracts to his Brooklyn friends for jobs such as dirt removal and replacing the whale oil in street lamps). What’s more is that the city seems bent on repeating his mistakes.

By 1877 words like “Very Vile, the Disgusting Conditions of the Gowanus Canal” graced the Brooklyn Daily Eagle’s headlines —understandable given the Brooklyn Health Department’s terrifying statistics: tens of thousands of gallons of urine and millions of pounds in feces flowing into the canal every year. In order to address the buildup of human-produced sediment in the shipping lane, the city built Greene Avenue Sewer main in the late 1880s. The idea was to move the flooding rainwaters near the top of the hill in Fort Greene down to the drain-like canal, where the clean rainwater would get rid of the worst CSO.

An editorial from the Eagle at the time read:

“Projected to cost a prohibitive $1,000,000, the large-scale work would have been the most efficient tactic to alleviate the Brooklyn’s two worst flood zones, all at once.  But the “political economists” of the Board of Alderman—mainly Michael J. Coffey, a leading Brooklyn democrat who had served in both houses of the state legislature— rejected the plan and its price tag. Instead, the Aldermen had kept up their Brooklyn tradition of ignoring the instructions of engineers and gave Robert Van Buren, the engineer (who was descended from President Martin Van Buren) a little more than $200,000 to contrive several makeshift relief sewers. “

Following a depression that led to the Panic of 1893, a total lack of engineer oversight and corner-cutting resulted in the sewer main being inadvertently connected to the combined sewer. It exacerbated the very problem the city was trying to fix.

The Green Avenue Sewer Main  is now the biggest outfall onto the canal — responsible for a once or twice a year overflow so grand that nobody could build a large enough tank to reduce the CSO by 100 percent — i.e., getting rid of them entirely. An infamous 2010 YouTube video demonstrates, with upsetting clarity and ironic narration, just how grand and disgusting the problem is. A local truism whose mention skirts on politically insensitive, there are urban centers in developing countries in the world that have dealt with their open sewers; New York City has not.

This is why, at our current trajectory, the canal will never be swimmable and likely never clean. In 1906 a high-achieving undergraduate student named Charles Breitzke managed to get his senior thesis about the overflow conditions of Gowanus published in an academic journal. The report was so shocking — and disappointingly similar to the 1877 report — that the city’s Health Department was forced to publish their own report based on Breitzke’s findings in 1908, and then do something about it.

By 1911, city engineers had conceived of a flushing tunnel; this too was a grand design for which engineering science of the era to realize the city’s goal — create a pump house that would create actually current flow into the canal — was not advanced enough to work. The tunnel did, inadvertently, make the canal cleaner by adding oxygen to the water that had long disappeared. Until this fix, barge captains famously drove their boats into the canal simply to kill and remove the barnacles stuck to the bottom of their boats. The combination of toxicity and total lack of oxygen was a common cleaning agent in many industrial canals of the era.

So while the first half of the 20th century provided a not-as-foul, still functional canal cum-open sewer, by 1960 the Flushing Tunnel works had stopped operating entirely (supposedly they had been ruined by a manhole cover tossed in by an irate longshoreman) and the city did nothing to fix it for almost 40 years. The life-supporting tidal estuary lost all ability to hold life, and it became Lavender Lake once again.

In 1974, Gowanus neighborhood fixture Buddy Scotto became actively involved with enticing big real estate developers to buy cheap lots around the canal, believing one day they could be valuable. He had grown up in the rough Italian neighborhood that sprung up around Gowanus, where the eyesore and stench of a toxic open cesspool reminded the working and ethnic classes in what neighborhood they could afford to live.

In dozens of meetings with politicians and party leaders, labor leaders and developers, Scotto was trying to create buzz about the canal to get the city to do something. But during the bankruptcy and collapse of New York City, spurred on by white flight, to Scotto, getting developers interested seemed the only way out. By 1987, thanks in part to Scotto’s lobbying, the city had completed the $487 million Red Hook Sewage Treatment Plant, which is confusingly located in the Brooklyn Navy Yard  (civic real estate projects and neighborhood politics are usually inseparable in New York). One of the major intended goals of the RHSP, outside of creating more sewer capacity for the Borough of Brooklyn, was to capture all of the raw sewage that was running into the canal. Despite the money and time spent, the treatment plant did not stop the flooding and overflowing of raw sewage in the canal. This is mostly because sewage treatment plants cannot fight gravity.

The city did not upgrade the original 1848, 18-inch sewer pipes to provide the capacity needed so as to prevent overflow. It’s as if each generation the city and its institutional memory totally forget or deny the existence of a grand issue of their own creation. In the present day there’s a sense that this insane repetition is deliberate.

In 1999, the city finally began to repair the Flushing Tunnel  just as Carroll Gardens and Park Slope were coming truly desirable to big real estate and expensive places to live. It was the “if you build it, they will come,” mentality of cleaning up toxic waste sites. The flushing tunnel, for the second time, brought oxygen to the water and also much attention: “Wait! How polluted is this canal?” is a question on the mind of yet another generation of Brooklynites.

Often politicians promise rezones for blocks of land bought by deep-pocketed developments, and Gowanus is a prime example, not just now but since approximately 1636, when two European colonists “purchased” 900 acres of land from some local Lenape natives. It’s just that this time we were supposed to clean it up before we let any more people live there.

Unless we prioritize the cleanup of a toxic waste site and open overdevelopment — the Gowanus Green development plan includes a schoolyard sitting atop a historic toxic waste site, next to a flood zone on an open sewer — we will be doomed to have a feces-filled canal until our children’s children watch the floods cover it all up. What kind of historic mysteries, polluted or not, will bubble up from under the surface then?

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    • LoginNYC

      A true gem of an article. Really appreciate seeing the current (ongoing) predicaments of Gowanus over this span of history.

      It leaves me wondering what we will leave for our children’s children? Will we continue down the same foolish path, now being stoked beyond anything done in the past? Are we capable of moving in a sane, environmentally sustainable direction for Gowanus?

  1. Andrew Porter

    I was told that one suggested proposal is that the canal be built over. Like burying a highway, or like they did with Hudson Yards, except it become one big sewer line. Engineering controls would be put in place to contain odors. It the end of the canal will be built a wastewater treatment plant to treat the discharge before it enters the bay.

    This would contain the problem and create thousands of square feet of new real estate for affordable housing.

  2. Lawrence Joseph Galligan

    As an attentive grandson age 9 who marvelled at the stories of crossing the Gowanus Canal to reach school, I appreciate the details in this grand report.. The drama played out for my Grandmother as she fell asleep, was whether or not “the bridge was up” which meant she and her school chum would be disciiplined if they arrived late to school. Her exact words were “get a licking” which could terrify her eighty years later from circa 1890s. It occurs to me that our oceans rising will add yet another epilogue about the Gowanus past and present, too filthy to be cleaned up.

  3. Myles DeRouen

    I had set a proposal in with several of the major developers, Toll Brothers to start, to give a very effective method of cleaning this seemingly unsolvable problem. It was not going to be cheap but it would work. My team basically got the response that unless “they” came up with the solution that they would not be entertaining the idea at all. We are getting ready to make a final run at this, any suggestions on who to contact within NY to really get some traction?