Gowanus Canal Cleanup Begins

Gowanus Canal. Photo by Udi via Flickr.

GOWANUS — Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the issuance of an administrative order requiring the start of the cleanup of the Gowanus Canal Superfund site.

Designated a Superfund site by the EPA in 2010, the lengthy clean-up project began in late 2017 with a dredging and capping pilot at the Fourth Street Basin where workers removed 11 feet of contaminated sediment from the floor of the basin and capped it with approximately two feet of sand, clay, and other materials to “create a clean canal bottom.” This served as a pilot cleanup program to help evaluate and finalize further dredging and capping for the rest of the canal.

“It’s great news that the EPA is formally starting the first phase of the cleanup plan,” Councilmember Brad Lander told Bklyner. “This is a critical piece of ensuring a healthy and sustainable future for Gowanus.”

The administrative order is part of the Remedial Action phase of the Superfund cleanup process. During the remedial action phase, the actual construction or site cleanup is implemented.

What’s Next?

The order covers both the cleanup of the upper canal and the 1st Street turning basin. The continuation of the project is estimated to cost $125 million and is expected to take about 30 months to complete. EPA and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) are coordinating closely on the cleanup of the Gowanus Canal and the surrounding area. The start of the cleanup required by the order is currently scheduled for September 2020.“The Department of Environmental Conservation looks forward to working with EPA in support of this important and ambitious project to restore the Gowanus Canal,” the NYSDEC told Bklyner. “We have worked closely with EPA, New York City, and local community to ensure the proposed cleanup is protective of public health and environment and will move quickly towards completion.”

Whose fault is it?

The order is being issued to six parties that EPA determined have the largest shares of responsibility for the contamination at the Gowanus Canal site: Brooklyn Union Gas Co., National Grid New York, the City of New York, Consolidated Edison Co. of New York, Inc., Hess Corp., Honeywell International Inc. and The Brooklyn Improvement Co. EPA is seeking to enter into cost recovery settlements with about 30 other private and federal government entities that have significantly smaller shares of responsibility.

“The Superfund program operates on the principle that those legally responsible for the pollution should perform or pay for investigations and cleanups, rather than passing the costs to taxpayers,” Sonia Mohabir of the EPA’s Public Affairs Office explained to us.

After sites are placed on the Superfund list of the most contaminated waste sites, the EPA searches for parties responsible for the contamination and holds them accountable.

Step-by-Step Cleanup

The cleanup plan for the Gowanus Canal Superfund site includes:

  • Dredging to remove contaminated sediment from the bottom of the Canal, which has accumulated because of industrial and combined sewer overflow discharges.
  • Construction of a multilayer cap in dredged areas will isolate and prevent the migration of any remaining chemicals in the deep native sediments.
  • Certain areas of the native sediment, below the original canal bottom, that contain mobile liquid tar and are too deep to excavate will be mixed with cement and solidified to prevent the migration of the tar into the water of the Canal.
  • Controls to reduce CSO discharges and prevent other land-based sources of pollution, such as street runoff, from compromising the cleanup are also included in the cleanup plan.

“We’ve come a long way to achieve this significant milestone in cleaning up the Gowanus Canal. With pilot dredging tested, full-scale dredging, capping and restoration of the canal can proceed, starting with the first third of the canal,” said Representative Nydia M. Velázquez, who represents the 7th district in Congress of which Gowanus is a part of, in a statement. “We are on an ambitious timeline for cleanup as compared to other Superfund sites throughout the nation. Most importantly, we are cleaning up Gowanus the right way, in a manner respectful of community needs, and responsible parties are shouldering the cost. I would like to thank all the EPA regional staff for their tireless work for the health and benefit of Brooklyn and New York.”


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