Gowanus

A Premature Plunge into the Gowanus Canal

By Elias Rodriguez

The Gowanus Canal harbors a legacy of industrial waste.

The Gowanus Canal harbors a legacy of industrial waste.

Last week, a gentleman garnered widespread media attention in New York by deliberately swimming in Brooklyn’s highly contaminated Gowanus Canal. This urban water body is on EPA’s National Priorities List of the country’s most hazardous waste sites. The Gowanus is scheduled for a cleanup under our Superfund program.

It seemed like every tabloid and television station in the Big Apple contacted us to ask if it was safe to swim in the Gowanus Canal. In a word: NO! As you can see from our color-coded hazard guide, direct contact with the water of the Gowanus should be avoided to reduce exposure risks.

Color Coded ChartWhat’s in the Gowanus? Data shows the widespread presence of more than a dozen contaminants, including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and various metals, including mercury, lead and copper, at high levels in its sediment. PAHs and metals were also found in the canal water. PAHs in the canal come mostly from former manufactured gas plants which used coal to make gas. PCBs were used as coolants and lubricants in transformers, capacitors and other electrical equipment. PCBs are suspected carcinogens and can have neurological effects. PAHs are also suspected carcinogens.

The origin of the Gowanus Canal goes back to the 19th century. It was envisioned as a transportation route for goods and services and, after its completion in the 1860s, the canal became an important link for commerce in the city. Manufactured gas plants, coal yards, concrete-mixing facilities, chemical plants and oil refineries were established along its banks. The canal was additionally an outlet for untreated industrial waste, raw sewage and runoff. Fast-forward to 2015 and you’ll see in the Gowanus’ murky water a legacy of urban and industrial pollution in the midst of thriving Brooklyn neighborhoods.

EPA’s $506 million cleanup calls for the removal of contaminated sediment and the capping of dredged areas. The comprehensive plan also includes controls to reduce sewage overflows and other land-based sources of pollution from re-contaminating the waters and ruining the cleanup.

EPA’s progress to date at the Gowanus Canal has been faster than at any other site of comparable complexity anywhere in the nation. We are currently working on the remedial design for the cleanup project to be followed by the start of actual dredging in 2016. When all the work is done, circa 2022, the Gowanus will be in much better shape. In the meantime, the EPA’s No Swimming warning is serious and remains in effect.

About the Author: Elias serves as EPA Region 2’s bilingual public information officer. Prior to joining EPA, the proud Nuyorican worked at Time Inc. conducting research for TIME, LIFE, FORTUNE and PEOPLE magazines. He is a graduate of Hunter College, Baruch College and the Theological Institute of the Assembly of Christian Churches in NYC.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

New App Advises When to Let it Mellow

By Elizabeth Myer

At EPA, we’re not tired of talking about Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) and apparently, most New Yorkers aren’t over the subject, either. And why should we be? Our waterfronts are home to an abundance of parks, fancy restaurants, and nightlife. As a matter of fact, according to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, real estate prices have actually risen in the Gowanus neighborhood ever since the Canal was deemed hazardous enough to be added to the National Priorities List (NPL). Despite the fact that severe contamination of New York waterways doesn’t necessarily seem to be a deterrent, we are certainly psyched to learn about the Parson’s Graduate student, Leif Percifield, and his ambitious startup called DontFlushMe. DontFlushMe aims to teach New Yorkers that we all play a vital role in reducing wastewater production before and during an overflow event.

Drainage in the Gowanus Canal (via Jessica Dailey)

According to Percifield, CSOs account for the nearly 27 billion gallons of raw sewage that are dumped into New York’s harbors each year. As a means of reducing wastewater, Percifield designed a prototype proximity sensor in hopes that it will eventually be used to measure water levels in sewer systems across New York. The proximity sensor operates in conjunction with a cell phone to transmit data to a database that contains various modes of contact information for DontFlushMe participants. When water levels appear higher than average, participants are alerted via text message, Twitter, or by checking a call-in number, should they wish to opt out of providing contact info. If interested, New York residents can register to receive these alerts on the DontFlushMe blog. In summary, when sewer systems are overloaded, it seems appropriate to apply the old adage: If it’s yellow, let it mellow…well, we all know the rest.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.