Toxic Waste Spurs Development Boom


Brooklyn’s own Gowanus Canal was designated a Superfund Site in 2009. This means the EPA will force the polluting companies to pay for the clean up of the canal.  Potentially Responsible Parties that were served notices are Con Edison, Honeywell, Kraft, ExxonMobil, Unilever, Viacom, Coca-Cola, Sears, their predecessors, or their affiliated businesses. The worst offender is National Grid due to decades of coal tar pollution. Also, the City of New York.

Residential and commercial buildings add to the problem by draining their sewage downhill and storm water collecting all sorts of runoff from 19th and 20th century industrial Brooklyn all end up in the canal. The natural tides from Upper New York Bay do not flush the canal out so the water stays put. Without movement, there is no oxygen.  Life died out, changed color from clear to brown to its current gray-green, and it began to smell.  Bubbles of foul air breach the oily surface due to decomposing sewage far below. Dense swirls of oil, at times, can become beautiful in the changing light.  In 2007, a 12-foot-long baby minke whale swam into the Gowanus. Healthy at first, it was soon nicknamed “Sludgy” due to a coat of slimy muck and sediment that covered its body.  Its health deteriorated rapidly and it died after a few days.  In 2013, a dolphin swam into the Gowanus and perished.

Dan Nosowitz wrote in Popular Science,  “The Gowanus is one of the most creatively and massively pathogenetic waterways on the planet. Water taken from different parts of the canal and from different depths will have totally different levels of contaminants, microbes, radioactive materials, or carcinogenic materials. It’s polluted and dangerous in an entirely different way than most other water because you have a huge, 1.8-mile waterway that’s completely stagnant.”

“We don’t really know what’s in there, we don’t know what’s in the soil and air around it, and we don’t know how it affects the tens of thousands of people who live within a few blocks of it.”   Nasreen Haque, a microbiologist who taught at the City University of New York attempted to study the microbial makeup of the Gowanus. She decided to have her students test for microbes in the canal.  “We found that everything we threw at it, every kind of imaginable pathogen, was growing there,”  she said. But here’s where it gets nuts: in the stagnant water of the canal, fed by chemicals from raw sewage, tar, and rotting garbage in the sludge at the bottom of the canal, they’re breeding and evolving into new forms we’ve never seen before.  In 2008,  Haque conducted a study revealing the white clouds of “biofilm” that float just above the sludge at the bottom of the canal.  The clouds aren’t microscopic; they’re giant clumps of white gunk that nobody had ever seen before.  Haque discovered the white clouds of biofilm because she is one of very few to have actually gone into the water.  Hague made her dive with the help of the Urban Divers Estuary Conservancy   This organization supplies Open Accessible Space Information System to NYC.

Cleaning up the Gowanus is a project of immense difficulty.  Companies dumping sewage and waste materials will have to be stopped.  A giant retention tank will need to stop the sewage tanks at the blocked end of the canal from overflowing and sending raw, untreated sewage directly into the Gowanus.  The sludge and the toxic soil around the canal will need dredged and removed.  Methods for treating the dredged soil, depending on the level of contamination, will need burned or treated and put to reuse.  The bottom will need sealed to contain whatever leaked down further.  Then layers of absorbent materials, sand, gravel, and rock, and clean sand will be needed to attempt restoring the canal bottom as a habitat. The current pump can circulate between 200 and 300 million gallons of water daily through the canal to remove water.  The area along the canal will get planted with native trees, grasses, and plants playing a vital role in preventing erosion, fostering a healthy ecosystem and improving its appearance.

So, after all of this bad stuff!

Ways You Can Help:


Until next week,

Garbage Girl



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