Gowanus Canal: working to give Brooklyn’s historic waterway a new life

Urgent measures are being taken to clean up the dangerously polluted canal that crosses Brooklyn

The Gowanus Canal dates back to the “Gangs of New York” era, a lawless time recounted by Martin Scorsese’s 2002 film; the years of the American Civil War and when thousands of European migrants flocked to Ellis Island. Those years were lawless in more ways than one. By 1870, the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn was already an open-air dump for industrial and human waste.
Almost one hundred and fifty years have passed and the 1.8-mile (2 kilometre) waterway is now at the center of an ambitious and complex project to clean up the canal and make it environmentally sustainable that began in 2010, when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) included it among the contaminated and polluted "Superfund" sites considered national priorities.

Making the Canal environmentally sustainable

Although nine years have passed since the Gowanus Canal was made one of the country’s top environmental priorities, redevelopment activities are still ongoing and the costs seem destined to rise substantially.
On April 3, the Congressional representative of Queens Nydia Velázquez sent a letter to government agencies requesting an increase in federal funds to complete cleanup of three New York sites: the Wolff-Alport Chemical Company of Queens, and Newtown Creek, and Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal.
The amount to be allocated for the 2020 fiscal year is $1.46 billion, but it may not be enough. The cost of the Gowanus cleanup alone, which calls for the construction of two huge sewage retention tanks (8 million and 4 million gallons) so rainwater and sewage won’t overflow into the canal, is expected to rise from an initial $78 million to $1.2 billion, the "Brooklyn Eagle" reported. According to the paper, in 2013 the EPA itself estimated the cost at $506 million. But the estimate was too conservative, because it did not take into account the renovation of an historic building along the canal. The cost rose because the city decided to locate the tanks on private property which it acquired through eminent domain, the paper said. In addition, the cleanup calls for dredging the industrial waste poured into the canal over the years and for building new barriers to stop current pollution.
Some of the actions needed for the Canal's redevelopment are being carried out by National Grid utility and the New York City municipality, but the project involves at least 30 PRP (potentially responsible parties), mainly large companies considered by the EPA to be more responsible.

The Gowanus Canal

A symbol of New York's industrial boom

The history of the Gowanus Canal dates back to the 19thcentury when the city of New York was developing into the great metropolis it is today. In 1840 the bay around New York Harbor was called Gowanus Bay, after Gowanus Creek, a small stream that crossed that part of the city. When Brooklyn’s economy and population began to grow, increasingly rivaling Manhattan, local authorities decided to turn that stream into a broad canal. Construction work began in 1849, the river bed was enlarged and the embankments secured. In 1869 the Gowanus Canal was ready to be sailed. Manufacturing companies flocked to the Canal because of its logistical value, lining its banks with factories. By 1870 the surrounding areas had become urbanized and industrialized, with factories dumping their waste into Gowanus without any sort of environmental control. In 1910, authorities made a first attempt to deal with the polluted canal by building a Flushing Tunnel almost 2 kilometers long, which ran from Butler Street to the Buttermilk Channel and discharged the waste from the canal into the harbor. But the practice of dumping industrial waste and raw sewage continued, and the Brooklyn canal became dangerous for the health of the local population.

Redevelop the United States of America

The Gowanus Canal has been included in the EPA’s National Priority List (NPL) of most urgent sites, one of the 1,337 contaminated places across the country that need to be cleaned up to prevent them from affecting people's health.
New Jersey is the state with the most sites on the NPL, with 114, followed by California (98 sites), Pennsylvania (92 sites), and the state of New York (85 sites). The battle for preservation and redevelopment began in the early 1980s with the establishment of the Superfund Program, which provides for federal funds managed by the EPA to invest in the cleanup of contaminated sites. Nearly 40 years later, that program is still active and the battle against industrial pollution in the United States is still being waged.