Feds: Gowanus clean-up is useless if city doesn’t cut the crap

The Brooklyn Paper
Share on TwitterTweet
Share on Facebook

Don’t miss our updates:

The Gowanus Canal will remain filthy even after a costly federal cleanup so long as the city continues to allow raw sewage to spew into the polluted waterway, local watchdogs and the Environmental Protection Agency allege.

The feds plan to dredge the Gowanus to clear out decades of industrial pollutants, but Washington officials claim their expensive plan won’t amount to much unless the city upgrades the area’s aging sewer system, which is overwhelmed during heavy rainstorms — resulting in the discharge of human waste into the putrid waterway.

“There’s no real point of dredging if you don’t get at the sources of contaminat­ion,” said EPA spokesman Elias Rodriguez.

As a part of a Superfund project intended to scrape toxic sludge from the bottom of the canal, the federal government can’t force the city to stop the so-called combined sewer overflow, which dumps more than 45 million gallons of household sewage into the 1.8-mile canal each year, based on city estimates.

Washington authorities have used federal clean water regulations to require the Bloomberg administration to launch a $180-million upgrade of nearby sewers in an attempt to reduce the ghastly effluvium by a projected 34 percent — but environmentalists say that isn’t enough.

“We have to stop treating the Gowanus Canal like a sewer,” said Gary Reilly, the chairman of Community Board Six’s Environmental Committee.

The EPA has asked the city to contribute more to the sewer overhaul.

City officials confirmed they have been in discussions with the feds, but say they are meeting their environmental obligations, blaming manufactured gas plants for most of the pollution.

“The evidence clearly indicates that the primary sources [of contamination] are the former industrial plants on the canal, and not ongoing sewer overflows,” Farrell Sklerov, a spokesman for the Department of Environmental Protection, said in a statement.

The EPA’s 2011 report on the contaminants in the Gowanus suggests otherwise. The study found that the combined sewer overflow, or CSO, contained high levels of toxic chemicals, metals and even pesticides. The smelly discharge is one of the leading causes of pollution in the canal, resulting in “unacceptable ecological and human health risks,” the report found.

That study is a smoking gun for environmentalists, who question the city’s commitment to cleaning the canal.

“The city’s plan to reduce CSOs is really insignific­ant,” said Marlene Donnelly, a member of Friends and Residents of Greater Gowanus. “[Under the current plan] we’ll see effervescent sewage gas bubbling up as we always have.”

Last week the EPA released a study outlining two possible options for its Superfund cleanup of the Gowanus. Both call for removing sediment loaded with coal tar, mercury, lead, and other chemicals from the bottom of the 150-year-old industrial waterway by dredging five to 10 feet of the muck, then capping the native soil beneath with a protective layer of sand, clay and gravel — a process expected to start in 2016 and cost between $351-456 million.

Under Superfund law, polluters must pick up the tab.

The feds have tapped 24 property owners whose land contaminated the canal to foot the bill, including National Grid, Verizon and the city.

Reach reporter Daniel Bush at or by calling (718) 260-8310. Follow him at
Updated 5:29 pm, July 9, 2018
Today’s news:
Share on TwitterTweet
Share on Facebook

Don’t miss our updates:

Reasonable discourse

Joe from Gowanus says:
The contamination the EPA is interested in funding removal of is dormant / buried under a layer of mud where nothing grows so fish don't eat it. Unless you scoop it out (dredge) you can let it be!

Instead, the Federal Government needs to provide funding to assist Cities like New York deal with modifying our ancient sewer infrastructure and stop issuing fines against our City because we don't have the resources to correct the problem.

Where is Obama? Should we start calling the Republicans for help? Where does Ms Donnelly expect the City to get the tax revenue funding now that Gowanus redevelopment has gone by the wayside due to superfund?
Jan. 12, 2012, 2:18 pm
JohnQ from South Brooklyn says:
Hey Joe-- Maybe the Mayor could take some of the tax $$$ from the 50,000-100,000 new residents that have been moved to this part of Brooklyn in the last few years and spend their tax $$$ on the infrastructure needed to support the additional population- not to mention the 10,000 - 15,000 folks who will be be using the toilets at the new Atlantic Yards stadium after having four of five beers! It is not right to support massive commercial and residential development and then chintz out on the things the new residents need like schools, parks and a clean environment.
Jan. 12, 2012, 3:32 pm
Dennis sinneD from Williamsburg says:
JohnQ from South Brooklyn and Joe from Gowanus, you both have powerful points. Previously, on Brooklyn Paper threads, other persons have argued in favor of large-scale luxury development on the grounds that "the tax base will be broadened." But the following article from the NY Times indicates that the incentives and tax abatements given to large-scale developers do not, in fact, "broaden the tax base":

From the article, ""Mr. Bender [Ratner's vice-president] was a hound to the chase after public subsidies. In 2009, the city’s Independent Budget Office concluded that the [Atlantic Yards] arena deal would cost the city $40 million more than it would generate in tax revenue over 30 years."
Jan. 12, 2012, 9:44 pm
Charles from Bklyn says:
When are the condos going up for sale?
Jan. 13, 2012, 1:56 pm
Joe from Gowanus says:

Gowanus aint Billyburgh or Atlantic Yards.

Gowanus developers would build middle-income "affordable" housing. The new residents would buy local, attend and improve our public schools, reduce our crime and embrace our Gowanus neighborhood. Currently, these families are moving out of the neighborhood, adding to New Jersey suburban sprawl and funding NJ economy, schools, etc. instead of Brooklyn!

Sorry Charles,

No shoreline condos in our lifetime - EPA needs to remove superfund designation first.
Jan. 13, 2012, 4:47 pm
Dennis sinneD from Williamsburg says:
Joe from Gowanus,

I appreciate your post, but I don't share your faith--I'll believe it when I see it. The trend to saturate communities with large scale luxury condominium development is not restricted to Williamsburg or Atlantic Yards--it's citywide wherever opportunity presents itself. And there is much interest in Gowanus--don't be fooled by the pollution [remember, Williamsburg continues to have a toxic environment--we still have Radiac! a nuclear waste transfer station whose underground complex extends to underneath an elementary school!] Don't get me wrong, I'm sure some middle-income "affordable" housing will be built, but only nested as a small percentage in large-scale luxury condominium development. As you yourself have said, "EPA needs to remove superfund designation first." I would go further, all the EPA has to do is get on with their clean-up; speculation will soon follow.
Jan. 14, 2012, 11:31 am
Dennis sinneD from Williamsburg says:
And to emphasize about the toxic environment and Radiac: it's right on Kent Avenue, and will be across the street from the most massive luxury condominium development in Williamsburg yet: CPC/R's New Domino.
Jan. 14, 2012, 12:26 pm
Josef from Clinton Hill says:
Joe from Gowanus

1. the EPA is full of expert scientists who study stuff like this for a living. Unless you can prove you're not just another Joe Schmoe, I see no reason to accord your ecological theories any credibility whatsoever.

2. Who are these mysterious "Gowanus developers" who are ready to build affordable housing? I have never yet heard of a developer who was interested in building anything affordable to normal people unless they were constrained to do so by the state, but I'd love to be proved wrong.
Jan. 17, 2012, 1:20 pm

Comments closed.

First name
Last name
Your neighborhood
Email address
Daytime phone

Your letter must be signed and include all of the information requested above. (Only your name and neighborhood are published with the letter.) Letters should be as brief as possible; while they may discuss any topic of interest to our readers, priority will be given to letters that relate to stories covered by The Brooklyn Paper.

Letters will be edited at the sole discretion of the editor, may be published in whole or part in any media, and upon publication become the property of The Brooklyn Paper. The earlier in the week you send your letter, the better.

Keep it local!

Stay in touch with your community. Subscribe to our free newsletter: