Black Mayonaise

What Exactly Is the Black Mayonnaise at the Bottom of the Gowanus Canal?

Photo by Susan De Vries  by Craig Hubert

There are numerous mysteries about the Gowanus Canal. But the most baffling, not to mention terrifying, is the thick dark sludge that makes it way through the oily waters, that which has been called black mayonnaise.

Aside from its gross name — which is a pretty good descriptor, to be honest — there has rarely been an acceptable explanation of what black mayonnaise is, exactly, and how it is formed. So we reached out to Christos Tsiamis, the EPA’s Senior Project Manager for the Gowanus Superfund cleanup, and asked him to explain.

gowanus canal black mayonnaiseA core sample from the former First Street Basin near the BRT Power Station. Photo via EPA’s Gowanus Canal Facebook Group

Black mayonnaise is the “result of chemical waste that was discharged from the industries that operated along the canal as well as by New York City sewage and street runoff,” wrote Tsiamis in an email.

“The combination of the chemicals and sewage gave the sediment the soft texture of mayonnaise, while the combination of liquid tar from the manufactured-gas plants, petroleum products (such as motor and lubricating oils), decomposed organic matter and sewage gave to this sediment its black color.”

gowanus canal brooklyn superfund sitesPhoto by Hannah Frishberg

A 10-foot-high layer of black mayonnaise lays over the original native sediment at the bottom of the canal. But is it dangerous?

The answer is a resounding yes.

“It contains a multitude of chemicals (in the dozens) many of which are toxic and dangerous to human health upon repeated exposure or from consumption of fish that is caught at the canal (or at close proximity to it) over time,” wrote Tsiamis. This was determined by a risk assessment study conducted by the EPA in 2010.

Will the cleanup cleanse the canal of black mayonnaise forever? Two months of dredging, starting in December, is expected to permanently clean the bottom of the canal, according to Tsiamis. Meanwhile, the Gowanus’ two new underground holding tanks are expected to keep a good part of sewage and street run-off from overflowing into the canal during storms. “After the storm passes, the liquid held by these tanks will be pumped for treatment to the city’s treatment facilities,” he said.

Tsiamis says these measures will free the canal of black mayonnaise forever. But the EPA will be checking every five years anyway, just in case the substance inexplicably returns.

Until next time,

Garbage Girl


POPS, PCBs and Plastic Pellets

In 2005, Dr. Hideshige Takada founded International Pellet Watch (IPW) to track and study plastic pellets.  Pellets are the raw material that gets remelted and molded into plastic products.  Citizens across the globe collected plastic pellets from the beaches they visited and sent them to his laboratory at Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology.  The content of the pellets are analyzed to determine its global POP distribution. The results are sent to the participants via email and released on the web.

So far, pellet samples from approximately 200 locations in about 40 countries have been analyzed.  Five samples are analyzed from each location to see piece-to-piece variability.  About 1000 pellet samples have been analyzed so far.  POPs were detected in every one of those 1000 pellet samples from around the world, even from remote islands, providing evidence that plastic pellets transport POPs for long distances.

POPs are hazardous human-made chemicals that are resistant to degradation in the environment. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), different sorts of organochlorine pesticides (e.g. DDTs and HCHs) and brominated flame-retardants are all POPs.

Analyzing plastic pellets enables IPW to observe spatial patterns of POP concentrations. For example, PCB concentrations were two to three orders of magnitude higher in highly-industrialized areas.  Even though, usage of PCBs was banned in the 1970s, they accumulated in the bottom sediments in coastal zones and rivers.  (General Electric caused The Hudson River to become a Super Fund Site by dumping PCBs into the water for decades).  Due to their persistent and hydrophobic nature, PCBs are easily remobilized by wind, waves, and currents, sediments stirred up by organisms, dredging and underwater construction.  PCBs continue to contaminate coastal waters by becoming absorbed into plastic pellets.

I googled plastic pellets and . . . . yikes!….0…1.1.64.psy-ab..0.11.1249…0i22i30k1j0i22i10i30k1.0.qqd1N-bxI3U

Until next time,

Garbage Girl

70 Years Of Clean Air And Water Wasted


Mr. John D. Rockefeller made a fortune from our love of mobility and the freedom it represents.  As a young professional, he recognized the power of oil to fuel transportation and America went wild!

Mr. Henry Ford, a farmer, designed the first assembly line automobile.  It ran on  alcohol.  His fuel was made anywhere, anytime, by anybody, out of anything that is or was a plant.

So, Mr. Rockefeller got his buddies together to formulate and pass Prohibition Legislation banning the transportation of all alcohol.  In the meantime, Mr. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil monopoly was split into 34 companies.  All 34 were in his stock portfolio.   America’s love for freedom was turning into an oil guzzling addiction that could no longer be supplied by choice.

Trolleys were everywhere.  Anyone could ride them anywhere. They ran on electricity.  It was possible to travel from San Francisco to New York City by transferring from trolley to trolley.

What happened to those trolleys?   I guess Mr. Rockefeller needed some more money.  Standard Oil, Mack Truck, General Motors, Phillips Petroleum and Firestone created a company that bought them all up and trashed them.  The replacement option?  Fuel guzzling buses.

Even though the Federal Government indicted all five companies for their part in the conspiracy, they started the largest public works project ever.  It was based on oil;  highways, suburbs, shopping malls, and the beginning of a consumer society that uses oil for fuel, clothing, food, medicine, lubricants, plastics, furniture and construction materials.

Freedom?  Well, that was based on cheap oil and loads of it! Limitless supply?  Ummm,  China now has more cars than we do. Cheap?  OPEC acting as a cartel ended that idea in the 1970s. Choice?  Hmmm, there doesn’t seem to be one.

Until you see the movie, Pump.  It will change your mind about our fossil fuel addicted future.

Natural gas may be here to stay.  Unfortunately, though, we can’t keep up with our own demand and its controversial extraction process is leaching into some of our water.   Natural gas is a shale oil or methane gas commonly associated with hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which uses water pressure to fracture shale and release the oil or gas.  We produce about 10 million barrels a day, we use about 18 million barrels a day and the world uses 88 million barrels a day.   US-shaleWe are running as fast as we can to stay in one place so it isn’t saving us any money at the pump.   Areas the size of states, like the Bakken Formation in North Dakota, are being shattered to bits.

But it gets better!  Alcohol has always been the better fuel and anyone can make it.  Beets, sorghum, buffalo gourds, corn, prickly pear and the alcohol producing giant…cattail flowers make it possible to produce fuel wherever you live.   Are you worried about food prices and supplies?  Don’t be, ethanol is the other byproduct of feed corn for animals.  You get more feed AND more fuel.  The same guys who want you to buy oil let you believe food prices rose because of ethanol production when food prices always rise after oil prices go up.

And it gets even better still!  Methanol is the cleanest burning, simplest, most abundant alcohol.  It can even be made on Mars and it isn’t as flammable as gasoline so race car drivers have been using it for decades.  Oak Ridge National Labs estimates that we have 1 billion tons of biomass for methanol available to use every year.  That includes 240 million tons of trash of which 160 of it currently goes to landfills.  Iceland is making it out of CO2 and Hydrogen.   For more on the Methanol Economy read  written in 2006!

Then there is electricity.  It can be made from wind and solar energy.  Nikola Tesla set out to convince us that we can have cars, clean air AND clean water.  By partnering with solar giant, John Paul Mitchell and Tesla owner, Elon Musk, along with many others, they are developing the infrastructure to produce and run affordable, luxurious, electric cars.  Even Roland Hwang, Director of the Energy & Transportation Program of the NRDC is excitedly reporting the vast improvement of lithium ion batteries because of electronics.

So what’s stopping us?  Back to those oil guys.  Our companies and our government mask our choices.  Cars that run on methanol, ethanol and gasoline have been around since Ford offered them in 1994.  Most people don’t even know they have a Flex Car.  If your gas cap is yellow, your car can be fueled by any combination of fuel.  To find out if your car can use other fuels go to Fuel Freedom Foundation’s website.

Even if you don’t own a Flex Car, the changes required to make it one are as simple as a piece of software that you install yourself.  Kits are easily available,  just google flex fuel kits.  But, the EPA considers it tampering with your car’s computer so its important to educate yourself thoroughly.  For installation and emotional support click

Alternative fuel stations can be located on line or you can go to

How You Can Help:

  • Imagine everything we throw away becoming biomass for fuel!  That means animal waste, construction waste, yard waste, food and agricultural waste, municipal solid waste, sewage, EVERYTHING that is or was a plant!
  • Support and form communities to get our paid representatives to stop eliminating our choices at the pump.
  • Consider installing a flex fuel kit on your engine.
  • Support local biomass collection and alcohol production.  Make some moonshine!
  • Let’s stop polluting our home.

Until next week,images-9Garbage Girl

Wonderful Waste

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Oh!  You are all going to hate me for this one!

Fireworks!  That wonder of wonders that has entertained us as spellbound kids every Fourth of July and every New Year requires a little more attention than oohing and ahhing over the beautiful patterns and colors.  This chart shows us what creates that magic.

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The “stars” encase various metal coated pellets floating in an arranged pattern in black powder.  Each star is strategically placed in a shell with more black powder, a bursting charge, and an ignitor.  The shell is placed in a semi-buried mortar with more black powder, a fuse and an ignitor.

When lit, off it goes!  Exploding black powder, chemicals and metal everywhere!  And now they are micro sized.

All fireworks contain small packets filled with metal salts and metal oxides, which react to produce an array of colors.  Those wonder producing colors are created by varying amounts of copper chloride to make blue, barium chlorate to make green,  and strontium and lithium salts to make red.  Secondary colors are made by mixing the ingredients of their primary-color relatives.

When heated, the atoms of each element in the mix absorb energy, causing its electrons to rearrange from their lowest energy state to a higher “excited” state.  The most common elements are carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen oxide (NOx), sulfur dioxide (SO2).  After exploding, it all becomes (PM10), which are particles less than or equal to 10 micrometers in diameter.   Ten micrometers is less than the width of a single human hair, small enough to get into our lungs.

The beautiful image introducing this week’s blog is a Green Bee Formation.  Its toxic green sheen comes from randomly packed  barium chlorate filled stars in small tubes within a spherical shell.   As the heat increases, the pressure in the tubes sends the stars zipping out haphazardly in different directions for different amounts of time and distances.

Jim Souza of Pyro Spectaculars has a really fun site that describes how many of the different formations are designed.  Check out his photo gallery!  Its not quite like being under the stars but its really cool!

Hmmm… what should we do?  Awareness or wonder?

The EPA has never made an issue out of fireworks pollution because we are only exposed to it once or twice a year.  They consider it of little harm.  However, air quality standards after a fireworks display show extremely elevated levels of  PM10, CO, NOx, SO2,  which are banned and routinely monitored by The Clean Air Act.

Some environmental groups have caused the cancellation of fireworks shows held over water because the fallout remains on the surface and travels downriver.  Now, The Clean Water Act comes into play.

How You Can Help:

  • Contact your local officials if you are concerned.
  • The Clean Air Act permits state and local governments to enact laws relating to the prevention and control of outdoor air pollution so your concerns will be heard.
  • The Clean Water Act regulates pollutants discharged by fireworks.
  • Your local police department can enforce any laws pertaining to fireworks.
  • Educate others by sharing the pollution dangers of fireworks especially to elders and young children.
  • Fireworks can be air-launched utilizing compressed air instead of gunpowder.  They can also be made with low-gunpowder formulations.
  • Low-smoke pyrotechnics produce practically none of the smoke or ash that traditional black powder fireworks do.
  • Avoid fireworks made in China.  There is a pattern of using banned or toxic chemicals without regard for safety.
  • Firework drones are capturing the sparks upclose!
  • Position your viewing upwind.  Or, view them from your kayaks in the middle of a salt pond in Rhode Island!
  • Happy Fourth of July!  The commemoration of July 4, 1776, when the Continental Congress adopted our Declaration of Independence.

Until next week,   Screen Shot 2015-07-02 at 4.32.46 PM

Garbage Girl