For the second time in 25 years, dredging is underway on Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal. Maybe this time it will work. Last time, it was a New York City project, it wasn’t the Environmental Protection Agency doing it under a Superfund cleanup.
Of course there was a ceremony for the beginning of the dredging, attended by a group of politicians and administrators all singing the praise of the $1.5 billion plan that won’t be completed until mid-2023. Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez has been involved as long as I can remember. She came to the canal on one of my first tour boat rides in 1998.
“We’ve come a long way to get where we are today. Full scale dredging is a welcome and long-awaited step toward full cleanup of the polluted Gowanus Canal,” said Velázquez. “Though this project is years from completion, we are on an ambitious timeline for cleanup of our first Superfund site in the city.”
Dredging is a time consuming practice. An excavator on a floating barge drops its claw into the water, lifting a handful of sludge from the sediment under the water. That handful is deposited into another barge and the process is repeated thousands of times. And this is just for the northern end of the canal from the Ninth Street Bridge to the canal’s head at Butler Street, a distance of 14 blocks.
More than a dozen contaminants, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls, and heavy metals, including mercury, lead, and copper, are at high levels in the Gowanus Canal. Sewage flowed into the canal as early as 1858, and by the 1880’s the waterway had gained the moniker “Lavendar Lake” for its odorous qualities. Manufactured gas plants (MGP), paper mills, tanneries and chemical plants operated along the Canal and discharged wastes into it.
Sediment that contains high levels of liquid tar will be heated in 400+ degrees in an oxygen-free environment at an off-site facility and disposed of. The less contaminated sediment could be used for covering landfills.
But then there is this stuff which the EPA will leave behind and describes as: “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. Following dredging and solidification of areas of the native sediment, construction of a multilayer cap in dredged areas will isolate and prevent migration of any remaining dissolved chemicals in the deep native sediments.”
What this means to me, is some of the coal tar is so ingrained in the eco-system that it is easier to make it solid and put a rubber cap over it so that down the road, someone else will have to deal with it. Like our great-grandchlidren.
While all this is going on, the northern section of the canal has been closed by the EPA to public usage – no canoes, no kayaks, no private boats.
The Gowanus Dredgers have fought for this project since their inception in 1999, bringing advocacy, conservation, and education to their boathouse located by the Carroll Street Bridge. The organization is communicating with the EPA to negotiate usage of the waterway. Currently, the dredging is taking place right in front of their dock.
“We’ve been calling for this moment for over 20 years.” said founding club member Owen Foote, “It’s about time!”
“The call for dredging polluted sediments was built into our very name right from the outset,” said Captain Brad Vogel. “We’re glad this day has arrived, as every one of our programs for two decades sought to highlight the need to clean up the Gowanus.”
The Dredgers are bringing events to the waterway beyond canoeing and the community is responding. With regular art shows in the boathouse, outdoor comedy, and movies on the canal, the membership is about community – and boating.
According to Vogel, the canal is not going to be closed to boating below the Ninth Street Bridge for the next 2 ½ years. And they are hoping for partial or restricted access between the Third Street Bridge and Ninth Street Bridge as the project advances.
If there is a way, the Dredgers will find a way to keep us all on the waterway. They have fought for this day for years.