In 1998 documentary,”Lavendar Creek,” an interviewee recalls referring to the Gowanus Canal “Perfume Creek.” With time, though, sarcasm has given way to resignation. Just like an old scar, many citizens of the neighborhoods surrounding the Gowanus Canal—Red Hook, Carroll Gardens, Gowanus, and Boerum Hill—have learned to ignore the putrid smell of the Gowanus Canal.
Despite the disturbing stench, the Gowanus Canal does not disappear from the landscape of Brooklyn. On the contrary, it gets more and more polluted as times goes on. The contamination with PCB—a highly toxic chemical compound responsible for causing cancer—other liquid, and volatile pollutants—including a wide number of metal and pesticides—have turned this 1.8 mile-long waterway into a stagnant creek of death.
“The issue is that the sewage overflows,” says Lizzie Oleskar, an activist and homeowner living near the Gowanus Canal.
“The whole sewage situation has not really be addressed by the city.”
Due to a conflict of interests that kept the City of New York passive for decades, preventing finding a solution for the Gowanus Canal, the State of New York decided to intervene with the services of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In 2010, the Gowanus Canal was then added to the National Priorities List of the agency and declared a Superfund Site.
The Superfund Program started out in 1980 after the discovery—two years prior—of high quantities of toxic waste in Niagara Falls, NY. The program was established by Congress to identify areas that are subject to high pollution, with the purpose of cleaning them up and make them livable.
Since its involvement began, the EPA has engaged in a joined effort, together with the people living nearby the canal, to put in action a definitive plan for the rescue of the Gowanus Canal. The interaction between the EPA and the people was mediated by several public meetings that happened at local level and a system of submission of comments.
In addition to the public meeting held by EPA, other groups like Community Advisory Group (CAG) have been created to allow the continuous interactions between locals and the IPA as the project for the clean up of the canal goes on. The CAG is an independent group and is intended to be most direct mechanism for locals to interact with EPA in addressing concerns related to the operations in the canal.
Last September 30, during a press conference that took place in Red Hook on the banks the Gowanus Canal, the EPA regional administrator Judith Enck announced that a final plan for the clean up of the canal had been decided. Enck said the cleanup would take eight to ten years and it would cost $506,000,000. The basic operations on the canal will include the removal of the contaminated sediment on the bottom of the canal and a subsequent renovation of the sewage flushing system, which Enck said will help the water remain clean after the polluting agents been removed.
The cleanup of the Gowanus Canal will certainly not be easy to implement, as the waterway has been under polluting agents for 150 years.
“At other Superfund Sites where EPA works—all over the region—we typically measure toxins in parts-per-million, parts-per-billion, sometimes in parts-per-trillion,” Enck said. “Here, we measure toxins in parts-per-hundred,” she then added, contextualizing the severity of the canal’s pollution.
The press conference—at which both Federal and City Officials were present, including Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz—revealed the political significance lying beyond the cleanup plan. The Gowanus Canal has become a stage where federal and city politics are at play, often clashing with each other. On one side, the city government has expressed its hostility towards declaring Gowanus Canal a Superfund Site, since that decreases significantly the value of the land.
The neighborhoods of Red Hook and Carroll Garden are undergoing a rapid development. In recent years, a transformation has been turning a prominently industrial area into a convenient place to move to and to open new businesses, since other neighborhoods in Brooklyn have become too expensive to live and work in.
The city administration has long sided with real estates in the intent of attracting new investors to facilitate the process of revaluation of the areas around the canal. The problem of the canal’s pollution is a real thorn in the side for the city officials, who have been called out by the public opinion for not addressing the issue. Now that the EPA and the federal government are involved, a contention has begun over who will actually carry on the operations in the canal.
The City of New York, one of the entities held responsible for the actual condition of the Gowanus Canal, together with a series of manufactured factories, has decided to collaborate with EPA in the project to move on from the negligent reputation it has long maintained in front of the public opinion of the canal. At the same time, however, the city administration has been critical on some of the features of the project presented by the EPA. One object of contention is whether some retention tanks will be installed on the canal to ensure the control of the pollutants. The Bloomberg administration deemed the tanks unnecessary. Though, at the press conference of last September 30, congresswoman Nydia Velasquez said firmly that the EPA has the power to overrun any city decision and that the cleanup project will take place as decided.
The cleanup of the Gowanus Canal is not only a matter of political influence. At stake are not only costs and timelines, but also—and especially—the health of the citizens of the neighborhoods around the canal. The clean up will involve a series of procedures that could be harmful for those living nearby. For instance, scraping of the bottom of the canal will produce a huge quantity of toxic waste.
During an initial phase of the project, there has been a proposal for creating a burial site in Red Hook that would host part of the waste. Serious concerns among the community have persuaded the EPA officials to make changes in that plan, ensuring that the waste pit be built somewhere else to ease the burden on the communities already in discomfort because of the canal.