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Uncovering the Gowanus Canal’s decades of toxic debris

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In photos, what the EPA has plucked from the canal’s malodorous waters

All images by Max Touhey

In late October, the Environmental Protection Agency launched a pilot program to test remediation efforts for the $507 million clean-up of the Gowanus Canal. Given the area’s history of industrial production and waste, it’s already proven to be a Herculean effort.

The EPA has been working closely with community stakeholders, including the Gowanus Canal Community Advisory Group (CAG), who last week was invited to tour the refuse that’s been pulled from the Fourth Street Basin, the small waterway that extends behind the neighborhood’s gleaming Whole Foods store. Curbed tagged along for the tour.

The refuse removal is just the first step in the multi-stage process of cleaning up the Brooklyn Superfund site. The next will be dredging the gummy mixture of pollutants, not-so-affectionately known as black mayonnaise, from the canal floor. That stage will kick into gear around next summer, and will be followed by a full dredging in 2018. Both the sediment and the objects removed from the canal will be shipped elsewhere, somewhere far away, for processing.

Oil floats over the surface of the canal.

The objects pulled from the test area of the murky canal were identified through sonar scanning—trees and tires, boulders and even the collapsed fiberglass hull of a boat—and once removed, cleaned for display. A site worker said that the materials being presented weren’t putting off any harmful gasses (oh, great), and that active air monitoring was going on around the perimeter of the site.

An archaeologist assessed that the materials that have been drawn from the canal aren’t of historical significance, but that doesn’t mean later excavations won’t produce anything of historic value. An EPA rep noted that more interesting things might avail themselves as the clean-up crews dredge deeper into the mayonnaise, which is said to permeate about ten feet.

This editor’s visions of trash oddities corroded beyond recognition by the gonorrhea water of the canal were anticlimactically met with neat piles of rusty rebar and other industrial crap that was once carelessly tossed into the formerly-fertile waterway. A car engine, metal, rebar, and tree trunks were piled across a platform loomed over by two mounds covered in industrial plastic. Underneath sat sediment removed from two feet of dredging that had been stabilized with cement in order to truck it out. A worker at the site said the sediment smelled like “decaying material” when it was pulled from the waterway.

Tsiamis pulls a bag up over his foot.

The men approach the sediment.

Midway through the tour, EPA Community Involvement Coordinator Christos Tsiamis donned a hazmat suit—with plastic bags taped around his feet, for ease of getting the boots on, a site worker said—just to touch the sediment.

The material is being staged on a site just north of the Smith-Ninth Street subway station that also reflects years of industrial abuse. A 774-apartment development with a major affordable housing component is due to one day rise there, though not much action has been taken towards realizing it since Hudson Companies won a bid to develop the site in 2008.

Max Touhey