Gowanus Canal cleanup: Where it stands 10 years later

March 6, 2020 Scott Enman
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Ten years ago Wednesday, Brooklyn’s infamous and oh-so toxic waterway, the Gowanus Canal, was declared a federal Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Superfund designation is both a bad thing and a good thing. It indicates the water is so polluted that it poses health risks to the public and the government needs to intervene. On the bright side, however, it means a cleanup of the waterway must get underway — though many may not see the canal cleaned in their lifetimes.

A decade after the canal received that fancy name, remediation has still not started. You read that correctly. It will have been 10-and-a-half years before the cleanup starts.

Several parties deemed responsible for the waterway’s pollution will begin dredging and capping on the upper portion of the canal this September. The full cleanup is expected to take two-and-a-half years, but will likely take much longer.

Joseph Alexiou, a journalist, historian and author of “Gowanus: Brooklyn’s Curious Canal,” says the waterway will never actually be clean with all of the new development that is coming to its shores.

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.
Crews work on the Gowanus Canal. Photo: Paul Frangipane/Brooklyn Eagle

Either a lot or not very much has happened over the years depending on how you look at it. Here are some of the key moments, starting in 2017.

In March of 2017, there was a brief scare when the canal’s cleanup fund was on the verge of running out, and President Donald Trump did not appear to be coming to the rescue.

More than a year later, some money did come in, but not from the Trump administration. National Grid, one of the main companies responsible for the waterway’s grime, agreed to a $100 million settlement with the EPA.

The EPA performed a dredging and capping pilot project in 2018 to determine the best methods for actually cleaning the canal come this fall.

During the pilot dredging of the Fourth Street Turning Basin, bocce balls and anchors were found. Those objects were than saved, and now sit in a Red Hook shipping container. Gowanus resident and activist Linda Mariano hopes to one day have those objects in a museum.

Related: Believe it or not, the Gowanus Canal cleanup won’t start until 2020

There was a long saga over how the cleanup would address the canal’s combined sewer overflow problem. (During heavy storms, rain that flows into city sewer systems can overwhelm waste treatment plants, forcing them to dump untreated sewage into New York’s waterways. When this occurs, it’s known as combined sewer overflow — or CSO.)

Two massive tanks — whose price tag skyrocketed from millions to billions of dollars — were chosen, and the EPA rejected the city’s plan to build a massive tunnel underneath the waterway.

Just this month city officials announced the completion of a $27 million sewer expansion plan along Ninth Street and Second Avenue that will reduce flooding on Gowanus’ low-lying streets, as well as limit the amount of pollution entering the neighborhood’s canal.

As Gowanus (the neighborhood) gets poised to undergo a rezoning, residents protested the new development, listed their demands and the EPA vowed to be a watchdog to make sure the cleanup wasn’t compromised.

A massive soundproof wall went up around a Gowanus film studio in November, so noise from the construction of another wall wouldn’t interrupt the studio.

Since then, there has been an influx of activity as dormant bridges were raised and numerous barges maneuvered along the narrow waterway in preparation for the cleanup.

Oh, and one of those barges sunk in a rainstorm.

Follow reporter Scott Enman on Twitter.

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