Tank battle: City defies feds, says it won’t build Gowanus sewage storage

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The city wants to flush a federal plan to keep raw sewage out of the filthy Gowanus Canal by temporarily storing overflowing toilet water in mammoth new underground tanks, claiming the $78-million project is completely unnecessary because poop is not the fetid waterway’s biggest problem.

The city’s Department of Environmental Protection told The Brooklyn Paper that sewage overflow shouldn’t be the focus of the fed’s so-called “Superfund” cleanup of the canal and that the main issue is the industrial waste that has been sitting in the canal bed for decades, so it has no plans to follow the federal government’s order to build two storage tanks to keep raw sewage out of the polluted channel during heavy rain storms.

The agency claims that its own analysis of the canal bed found coal tar, a carcinogen dumped into the water by nearby gas plants last century, which it says should be the focus of the cleanup, and that the estimated 355 millions of gallons of wastewater that gets spilled into the “Lavender Lake” each year will not re-contaminate the water once the industrial waste is removed, making the expense unnecessary.

“The proposal to build large holding tanks is not supported by the sampling and analysis done by either DEP or EPA,” said Ted Timbers, a spokesman for the city’s Department of Environmental Protection.

Federal officials admit that the sewage isn’t the primary form of pollution in Brooklyn’s nautical purgatory and that the chief toxin in the sediment is, in fact, the coal tar that has seeped 150-feet-down into the canal-bed, but they say the raw sewage is a problem that needs to be faced.

“In terms of the total tonnage of pollution in the mud, there is no question that the majority comes from coal tar sources,” said Walter Mugdan of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, who added the raw sewage being dumped into the canal still needs to be addressed.

The feds say that the proposed holding tanks, one of which would likely be buried underneath the neighborhood’s beloved Thomas Greene Playground and adjoining Douglass-Degraw Pool, is the best way to keep raw sewage out of the canal, claiming it would reduce the amount spewing from rerouted drains by 58 to 74 percent.

There are approximately 10 drains along the 1.8-mile inlet that releases sewage the feds claim is laden with pollutants composed of gasoline, diesel fuel, and coal tar residues from people and businesses that dispose of items such as used oil into their drains and sinks and from street runoff during storms that carries road tars and oil drippings into the sewers. But only two of those pipes — one at the head at Butler Street and one at the middle of the canal — are responsible for the vast majority of sewage overflow into the canal. The feds’ plan will reroute those pipes so that during heavy rainfall sewage will flow into the holding tanks instead of the canal.

The tanks would then hold up to 8 million gallons of runoff until storms pass, then push the slop back through sewers to the Red Hook and Owl’s Head wastewater treatment plants.

But the city says there are other ways to solve the problem that don’t necessitate the construction of giant holding tanks beneath a local park, and that it is working on that alternative.

“DEP has already committed more than $150 million to on-going projects that we know will improve water quality in the Gowanus Canal and we are opposed to building storage tanks because they would result in the loss of an important community amenity, have a minimal effect on water quality, and amount to yet another unfunded federal mandate and higher water and sewer rates for New Yorkers,” said Timbers.

It claims it can reduce discharge by 45 percent by reopening the Gowanus wastewater pumping station and installing 600 curbside gardens designed to soak up rainwater.

The city also plans on the reactivating the on-again, off-again Gowanus Canal flushing tunnel later this year, which has been shut down since 2010 for repairs. The tunnel, originally constructed in the 1900s, was designed to pump fresh water from Buttermilk Channel into the head, but since the late 1990s has sent water in the opposite direction.

But the feds say that the city’s plan is not enough to do the job that the canal needs and the city, which it calls one of the major polluters of the canal, may not have a choice in the matter.

The Environmental Protection Agency claims under federal law, it can force the city build the holding tanks if that proposal makes it into the finalized cleanup plan that it will release this summer.

“We have the authority to limit or mitigate or address any ongoing pollution that goes into a Superfund site,” said Mugdan. “The only way we can see that is through these retention tanks.”

If the city refuses to comply without offering an alternative site for the tanks, the feds will take the city to court, where it could face fines and penalties.

“The city will either tell us this is a good location or here’s a better location — ultimately they cannot say there’s no location — [the tanks] have to be built,” said Superfund project manager Christos Tsiamis.

Reach reporter Natalie Musumeci at or by calling (718) 260-4505. Follow her at
Updated 10:10 pm, July 9, 2018
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Reasonable discourse

wow says:
what a change in direction. wonder if the tanks can be built within the CDF they want to make in Red Hook?
May 8, 2013, 1:10 am
another wow says:
"another unfunded federal mandate" ya gotta luv the way the dep spokeshack can deflect any argument. perhaps if the city dep had stop sending all those billions of gallons of sewage into the canal and into our waters around the city there wouldn't be the need for federal mandates..just a thought..
May 8, 2013, 8:49 am
JJBurkard from Red Hook says:
No matter what side your on, the Red Hook residents came through with flying colors on this issue....They stuck to their guns and forced the EPA to withdraw the attempts to store this stuff in Red Hook....This is
the first time I have witnessed the neighborhood come together like they did....I am proud to see such unision on everyones part...Red Hook reidents deserve an A plus for this.....JjB.....
May 8, 2013, 12:28 pm
JJBurkard from Red Hook says:
No matter what side your on, the Red Hook residents came through with flying colors on this issue....They stuck to their guns and forced the EPA to withdraw the attempts to store this stuff in Red Hook....This is
the first time I have witnessed the neighborhood come together like they did....I am proud to see such unision on everyones part...Red Hook reidents deserve an A plus for this.....JjB.....
May 8, 2013, 12:29 pm
big flush from Gowanus says:
Thanks for an information packed story.

It is more than sad that the Feds have to prod the DEP to do the right thing.
Today's rain caused the canal to flow with sewage--you can smell it in the air.
But just where would the Flushing Tunnel flush that stuff out to? ...a followup story?
May 8, 2013, 1:04 pm
JJBurkard is Greg O'Connell, Jr.! says:
May 8, 2013, 4:46 pm
jay from nyc says:
why in the hell is the DEP acting like its fine for human sewage to get dumped into water ways? What is this friggin India? Did I just wake up in some third world country this morning? Whiskey Tango Foxtrot!!!
May 8, 2013, 7:10 pm
JJBurkard from Red Hook says:
Clarification - I wish to state that my kudos to the residents of Red Hook in no way implies my approval of the outcome of the decision on the placement of the GC sludge...
I sincerely felt to let GBX do the job would not harm the neighborhood in any way...My comments were directed to the demonstration of togetherness displayed by area residents which is something I have never seen in all my years as a resident Now,someone must handle the job, and in my opinion it would have been more advantagous to allow a bonafide Red Hook firm such as GBX to tackle the job.....JjB......
May 8, 2013, 10:54 pm
Go On Us No More from Gowanus Forever says:
Every time it rains, when you flush a Brooklyn toilet, chances are the poop is going to come out in the Gowanus Canal. We need a storage tank to hold the poop water! But (yes, i said butt!) just like those racist idiots five years ago were suggesting putting a middle school in the near-by prison --- similar racist idiots are a-ok with putting the big poop storage tank under our community pool! Will the wonders never cease?! Yes, we need schools -- but not in prison buildings. Yes, we need poop holding tanks -- but not in pools that serve public housing residents.

I signed a petition that firstly said "I support the EPA Clean-up" and secondly said "Put the tank anywhere else but under the pool." I believe over 700 of us signed the same petition of support for the cleanup to the EPA.


I don't see no Frogs, or Cobble Hillers, or Red Hookers generating anywhere near the number of official comments of support for the cleanup -- by the april 27 deadline. So does that mean the pool supporters are the most numerous group of pro-Superfund Clean-up supporters?

Yes, it does!

So all you dumb so-and-so's who say the "keep a pool open" movement is a ruse to stop the clean-up, owe the 700 or 800 of us who signed the petition, and the good people of the Friends of the Pool who started the petition, a big apology.

You are just wrong, wrong, wrong. And you are in the minority of Superfund Cleanup Supporters.

Save the Pool is the Majority group of pro-superfund commentators. So get on the right side and support a fair cleanup.

And stop trying to take away our pool, or putting our pool at odds with the clean-up.

It just makes you sound paranoid and ignorant.

Join us-- support the cleanup! support the pool -- a replacement one during the cleanup, and a permanent one after.

And stop lying to the people that supporting the pool means not supporting the clean-up. I have had just about enough of you people and your dumb b.s..
May 9, 2013, 1:53 pm
oh so mad from gowanus says:
Sure wish when it rained the all the toilet flushes did make their way into the canal. People shouldn't have this stuff gushing in their homes and in the streets where the kids play. They need to do something.
May 9, 2013, 8:58 pm
teegee from district 38 says:
yes, to storage tanks, no to bad location. there is no excuse for toilet water to be sent directly into the bay on rainy days. it has been a regulation for years and I thought nyc had already created such storage tanks for each sewage treatment zone. I guess not. but definitely don't let this issue get lost...the tanks are needed.
May 16, 2013, 2:17 pm
Paige Tooker from Gowanus says:
How about demanding effective water treatment plants for sewage whether it rains or not.
Instead of the band-aid approach of 'storing
' raw sewage in tanks in our community, residents must begin to hold our government accountable to provide adequate waste processing.
May 19, 2013, 10:01 pm
keep the sewage in the system from gowanus says:
Would be great, but the sewer in Gowanus pipes are all to dinky to hold Brooklyn's sewage when it rains. It's just not possible to get it all to to the treatment plant, without first constructing massive new sewer pipes; and the city won't do that either.

So the sewers burst like a projectile vomiting kid, emptying into the canal.
The EPA said the holding tanks are the least expensive way to keep the sewage out of the canal--(like giving your kid a bucket rather that hitting the whole apartment).
June 3, 2013, 3:54 pm

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