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Mud ball plan to clean Gowanus Canal with microbes

Mudslinging muckrakers! Dirt balls could clean Gowanus, eco-activists say

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Throwing mud into the Gowanus Canal is the secret to cleaning the dirty waterway, environmental activists say.

Mud balls packed with microbes that eat toxins and secrete nutrients can reduce pollution from raw sewage and make heavy metals less harmful, allowing native plants and animals to return to the putrid viaduct, according to the Masters of Succession Collective.

If the group gets its way, hundreds of volunteers will lob thousands of microbe-laced mud balls into the canal.

“It’s going to be an eating frenzy with the sludge,” said Dee Dee Maucher, who heads the group and pitched the idea at a TEDx event in DUMBO last Saturday.

The baseball-sized mud balls would contain a cocktail of beneficial bacteria found in yogurt, cheese, and beer dubbed “EM–1.” Often used to speed composting, the microbes consume organic material and produce enzymes, vitamins, and antioxidants that feed other organisms.

A 32-ounce bottle of the stuff sells for $30 at Home Depot, and although the water-cleaning microbes can be poured into the canal directly, the group says mud balls are more effective and more fun — increasing community participation in cleanup efforts and educating Brooklynites about natural ways to fight pollution.

Leaders of the collective hope to raise $3,000 and gather volunteers to make 100,000 balls — enough for one year of cleaning.

Doing the same with liquid microbes would require more of the costly cocktail applied in regular intervals — adding $15,000 to the price tag.

To keep costs down, planners are seeking partnerships with local breweries that could host fund-raisers and provide mud ball materials. Eventually, they imagine mud balls being sold in vending machines or cafes along the canal.

The proposal emulates a 2009 cleanup in Malaysia, where more than 18,000 people chucked 1.2 million mud balls into polluted rivers. Within seven months, sludge thinned visibly and some aquatic life returned, according to one report.

But some residents fear microbes would do little to clean a waterway that’s flooded with raw sewage during storms and is so dirty it actually has gonorrhea.

“You would have to constantly dose it with microbes,” said Marlene Donnelly of Friends and Residents of Greater Gowanus. “It’s not a fix. It would be a temporary thing at best, and at worst you would have to use so much that you would make it more polluted.”

The Environmental Protection Agency declared the canal a Superfund site in 2010 and plans to dredge filthy sediment in a cleanup that could cost $456 million, but ruled out using microbes because of the severity of the contamination and because they would not attack coal tar waste, heavy metals, and other pollutants.

“There are dozens if not hundreds of chemicals in the canal,” said Christos Tsiamis, who heads the federal cleanup. “These microbes might affect some of them but will not affect the vast majority.”

The Environmental Protection Agency will object to the project unless organizers seek approval, he said.

But microbes are worth a try, according to biologist and mud ball backer Paul Mankiewicz.

“Microbes could break down anything on Earth, anything we make,” said Mankiewicz, who directs the Gaia Institute and is treasurer of the New York City Soil and Water Conservation District. “Mud balls are not the perfect solution in and of themselves, but they’re worth testing and seeing if they have an effect even locally.”

Updated 5:36 pm, July 9, 2018
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Reasonable discourse

Mike from Williamsburg says:
I can't understand why you wouldn't try something that costs $3,000. Let's throw them in the Newtown Creek too.
Oct. 16, 2012, 7:40 am
Greg from Gowanus says:
So where were they during the entire scoping process for the Superfund? And even if there is merit in the idea, clearly the EPA is aware of the potential but they rejected it as a matter of scale!

Why do I smell Bloomberg's hand again, trying to derail the Superfund? The Gaia Institute may be dupes in this, innocent or not.
Oct. 16, 2012, 10:07 am
Timothy Paulson from East Village says:
Full disclosure, I'm a member of the MoS Collective that wants to test the mud balls. That said I can guarantee you we're not working for Mike Bloomberg. The point I'd like to make is a test is a test, it's a reasonable thing to do. If the test works and the application of $3000 of mud balls eliminates nothing more than the stench for the years spent waiting for the $456 million dollar solution, why not do it? Also, the cavil that it would take "enormous amounts of EM" to clean the canal doesn't seem to be based on any hard facts. We do know that it worked to take the smell away from Penang harbor. If Superfund comes through and takes away the heavy metals, the 3 grand will still have been a drop in the bucket cost-wise, while improving the quality of life along the canal.
Oct. 16, 2012, 1:20 pm
o3 from bk says:
throw sum mudballs at smelly hipsters too!
Oct. 16, 2012, 2:01 pm
o3 from bk says:
throw sum mudballs at smelly hipsters too!
Oct. 16, 2012, 2:01 pm
o3 from bk says:
sorry for the 2x post
Oct. 16, 2012, 2:02 pm
Joe from Gowanus says:
Superfund had no scoping process - the EPA nominated the Canal, collected comments, didn't respond to comments and listed the waterway anyway. The EPA doesn't care that fish caught in the Gowanus contain toxins injested from dining on sediment OUTSIDE the canal (where plants can grow).

After the EPA spends $0.5B to remove the canal sediment, our CSOs will re-contaminate the Canal so the Gowanus Superfund will never end and that ensures that Tsiamis has a lifetime job at the EPA. Marlene Donnelly is against any change.

Let's grow some balls!
Oct. 16, 2012, 2:04 pm
Greg from Gowanus says:
Joe from Gowanus couldn't be any more wrong if he tried, and he sure tries hard!

The EPA listened to all the comments and had complete public participation.

The PUBLIC listened to presentions from both the EPA and the Mayor's rep, Cas Halloway. They didn't listen to the fables and just-supposes that Bloomberg tried to sell the community with his so called "plan" (Quicker! Better! Cheaper! And a complete crock!) The public decided to follow the recommendations of the EPA, Joe, which you would know if you'd been at any of the dozens of meetings leading up to a decision. The EPA and the public also politely listened while people with ties to the Scotto family tried to sell their equipment for use by the EPA.

And I still say let the mudball throwers run their legitimate experiment on their own dime in a controlled setting, not one where there are already remediations going on. That would be a genuine scientific process, not something that "sounds good."
Oct. 17, 2012, 10:39 am
Greg from Gowanus says:
Joe from Gowanus couldn't be any more wrong if he tried, and he sure tries hard!

The EPA listened to all the comments and had complete public participation.

The PUBLIC listened to presentions from both the EPA and the Mayor's rep, Cas Halloway. They didn't listen to the fables and just-supposes that Bloomberg tried to sell the community with his so called "plan" (Quicker! Better! Cheaper! And a complete crock!) The public decided to follow the recommendations of the EPA, Joe, which you would know if you'd been at any of the dozens of meetings leading up to a decision. The EPA and the public also politely listened while people with ties to the Scotto family tried to sell their equipment for use by the EPA.

And I still say let the mudball throwers run their legitimate experiment on their own dime in a controlled setting, not one where there are already remediations going on. That would be a genuine scientific process, not something that "sounds good."
Oct. 17, 2012, 10:39 am
Marlene from CG says:

This reporter can not be trusted to hear the answers to her questions. And Joe couldn't possibly know what I am for or against based on anything this paper has ever contrived to attribute to me.

The young reporter called during Sunday dinner with a clear agenda of trying to force me to say I was against this activity. I did no such thing. I did tell her that the community explored these types of alternative cleanup ideas years ago through Columbia University projects. I also said that the community asked the EPA to consider alternative cleanup methods like this and they did.

I said that the EPA told the CAG that these methods could not be effective in fixing the problems in the canal because one would need large amounts of these substances to countering the extensive pollution in the canal; that it wasn't a fix and so much of these substances might themselves cause pollution. The was a reporting, not an opinion.

The one opinion I repeatedly stated for the reporter was that I couldn't imagine that the mud balls would be any more harmful than the the stuff the DEP is hurling into the canal every day through their sewer system. This is not a statement for or against the proposal. It is too bad this paper chooses to mislead Joe.
Oct. 17, 2012, 8:49 pm
Joe from Gowanus says:
Greg,

Many people were in favor of Superfund because they felt it would stop redevelopment but as we now know, the reverse is true. Prior to Superfund, sections of the Canal were proposed by the Mayor to retain mmanufacturing and now our Community Board is officially recommending that DCP a complete rezoning of the entire neighborhood.

I agree EPA were paid (with our tax dollars) to attend many meetings to tell us they will Superfund Gowanus and collect our comments. The EPA then ignored all comments and didn't even notice Canal property owners of the designation. EPA said this cleanup would be complete in 10 years so we'll see if they hold true to their promise and clean our Canal by 2020. On 9/13/01 the EPA said WTC air was safe as well!

Let's grow some balls!
Oct. 18, 2012, 1:29 pm
Greg from Gowanus says:
Joe, I don't know where you got your information, but you're wrong about the EPA ignoring the comments.

They did always say they would make their decisions based on science, which is why the Mayor's completely non-scientific fable of a plan got ditched. They also said that the remedy they would propose would depend on the future uses of the canal, and that they would follow the directions of the city and community.

They are only dealing with the water in the canal, not the land. (If your problem is with cleaning the land and its uses, take it up with the State Department of Environmental Conservation.) The level of cleaning the EPA is proposing is for an area that has both residences and commercial/manufacturing buildings on the uplands, so it is not proposing a level that would allow for swimming. This has a lot of the community upset, but it is what the zoning calls for.

They have been thorough, are right on schedule, they have wasted no time, they have listened to everyone and are taking direction from the local zoning ordinances. What else do you want?
Oct. 19, 2012, 9:44 am
Joe from Gowanus says:
Greg,

I continue to search for one EPA response to comments so please post if you find one? EPA must approve of adjacent land usse as well and recently approved Lightstone's redevelopment.

The EPA's superfunding WILL NOT help those owners remediate their property and potentially avoid the extra development that will now be needed to finance the housing and many would like 4-6 story residential instead of 8-12 stories.

You are referring to the Mayor's response to the EPA's nomination and not the Mayoral plan, which was to gradually improve portions of Gowanus that were mostly parking lots and preserve the industrial area until the EPA nominated waterway to the NPL.

The Mayor's response was simply an effort to stop the EPA but that has never happened - all sites nominated by EPA are designated so the whole process was a sham. EPA justifies sediment removal is needed because fish caught in Gowanus are contaminated BUT THE FISH have injested contamination from plants NY Harbor - not the Canal as EPA claims - no plants grow in Gowanus sediment.
Oct. 19, 2012, 2:24 pm
Bendrix from Crown Heights says:
"o3 from bk says"

Look at me, I'm a tough hipster hater! Oh, sorry for double posting.

haha. what a wuss.
Oct. 19, 2012, 3:41 pm

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