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


Rwanda and Kenya Plastic Pollution Leaders

Plastic bags get buried in the sand and become part of the beach.

Rwanda and Kenya are leading the world by eliminating a familiar problem: billions of plastic bags choking waterways and destroying entire ecosystems.  To fight this evil, all non-biodegradable plastic is banned from these countries.

At Kigali International Airport, a sign warns visitors that plastic bags will be confiscated.  Agents from the Rwanda Environment Management Authority (REMA) inspect travelers’ suitcases and discard all plastic films. Throughout the country, businesses have been forced to replace plastic carrier bags with paper ones.  The ban was a bold move. It paid off with an obvious improvement in clean countrysides, roadways, and water.

The United Nations, has begun a #CleanSeas campaign to eliminate the use of plastic microbeads and single-use plastic bags by 2022.   With more than 40 countries acting now to help meet this goal, there is no excuse for the rest of the world to wait.

Many other countries, states and cities are in the news because they are trying to deal with this horrific issue.

England imposed a 5-pence charge on plastic bags in 2015 and usage dropped 85 percent in the first nine months!

California became the first American state to ban plastic bags, in 2014.  State laws are slow to pass.  See where your state stands in the Ban the Bag push.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo blocked a New York City bill in 2014 to impose a 5-cent fee on plastic bags because less advantaged people would be unfairly targeted and the NYC economy is dependent on consumer convenience.  Early this year, Mr. Cuomo formed a task force to create passable legislation. That law cannot come soon enough.  The New York Department of Sanitation collects an average of 1,700 tons of plastic bags per week, costing $12.5 million per year in disposal expenses.

No bag is free of an environmental impact, whether that’s contributing to climate change, ocean pollution, water scarcity, or pesticide use. We tend to favor reusable bags in an attempt to reduce our chronic overconsumption, but they come with many associated problems.

Considering what we put in the bag at the store (unnecessary packaging, meat, products wrapped in plastic, single use products) and how we discard or use the bag after its achieved its original purpose has a real impact on the environment.

These books will open up a whole new world.  Color photographs, maps, and graphics explore one of the planet’s most dynamic environments—from tourist beaches to Arctic beaches strewn with ice chunks to steaming hot tropical shores.  The World’s Beaches tells how beaches work, explains why they vary so much, and shows how dramatic changes can occur on them in a matter of hours.  It discusses tides, waves, and wind; the patterns of dunes, washover fans, and wrack lines; and the shape of berms, bars, shell lags, cusps, ripples, and blisters.  This fascinating, comprehensive guide also considers the future of beaches, and explains how extensively people have affected them—from coastal engineering to pollution, oil spills, and rising sea levels.  The Beach Book tells sunbathers why beaches widen and narrow, and helps boaters and anglers understand why tidal inlets migrate.  It gives home buyers insight into erosion rates and provides natural-resource managers and interested citizens with rich information on beach nourishment and coastal-zone development.

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

Jamaica Bay Wasted?


Last weekend, Martin and I paddled our kayaks into Jamaica Bay, checking out the avid birdlife, exploring the piers, dodging the fishing lines, thinking the fishermen can’t really be eating their catch, wondering why the waterline has a black discoloration, and  imagining the passengers watching us from the windows of still low flying planes taking off  from JFK (an airport, home to bird-murdering planes and plane-destroying birds, situated on a wildlife refuge protecting birds is lost on most people).  The flattish shoreline changed to a grassy elevation that was beautiful but somehow seemed odd so we pulled the boats up to a large stack extending vertically from the shore, enclosed by a barbwire fence and warning of flammable conditions. Ah!  We’re standing on a landfill!    This natural/manmade environment often creates a weird, out of place, feeling.  We collected as much litter from the beach as we could stuff into the laundry baskets, large plastic containers, and plaster buckets washed up from I can’t imagine where, planted a discarded red West Indian flag left behind from some celebration and rode the outgoing tides back to Paedergast Basin.
Jamaica Bay is a saline to brackish, nutrient-rich estuary covering about 25,000 acres with a mean depth of 13 feet.  Located on the southern tip of Long Island, the majority of the land is publicly owned by our federal government and New York City.  Gateway National Recreation Area which covers 9,155-acres includes Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, Breezy Point. Floyd Bennett Field, Marine Park, Edgemere Park, Jacob Riis Park, Fort Tilden and numerous other fun and historic places to visit. Portions of the wetlands and uplands are part of John F. Kennedy International Airport.  Small areas in the upland buffer around the bay and on the Rockaway Peninsula remain in private residential or commercial ownership.
Jamaica Bay is protected shoreline by the federal Coastal Barrier Resources Act.    The Nature Conservancy recognizes Breezy Point and Fountain Avenue Landfill as Priority Sites for Biodiversity.  The New York State Department of State and the New York Department of Environmental Conservation designated Jamaica Bay as Significant Coastal Fish and Wildlife Habitats. The New York City Department of City Planning recognizes it as one of three special natural waterfront areas needing important attention to restore habitats and improve water quality.screen-shot-2014-09-13-at-2-13-15-pm

As part of the New York metropolitan area, Jamaica Bay, the uplands around the bay, and the Rockaway barrier beach, are dominated by urban residential, commercial, and industrial development. 12,000 of the original 16,000 acres of wetlands in the bay have been substantially altered by dredging, land fill, and development.  Virtually the entire watershed of Jamaica Bay is urban, developed land receiving pollution from a variety of sources such as municipal waste water treatment plants, sewer overflows, untreated storm water runoff from the roads and developed areas around the bay (including the de-icing chemicals from the runways at JFK), leachates from Edgemere, Fountain Avenue, and Pennsylvania Avenue Landfills now closed (a combined 400 acres), atmospheric pollution and toxic chemicals from vehicles, airplanes and boats, windblown and discarded trash, and the potential spills from increasing water transport of oil and chemical products. All of these present and historic inputs of toxins contaminate sediment in parts of the bay which have lethal and sublethal effects on benthic organisms and bioaccumulate up the food chain.

Interaction of nutrients and other gases
between the benthos and other organisms in the water column


The salt marshes of Jamaica Bay are prime habitat for migratory birds and wildlife.   The area once enjoyed a worldwide reputation for oysters and a vigorous fishing industry.  A majority of the waters and marshes have been protected since 1972 as part of the Gateway National Recreation Area.  The marshlands are diminishing at the rate of approximately 40 acres per year, most likely from rising sea levels, more vigorous storms and tons of nitrogen discharged into the bay every day. The New York City Department of Environmental Protection  under Mayor Bloomberg installed enhanced treatment measures and some progress is being made.

Jamaica Bay is also located adjacent to the confluence of the New York Bight and New York Bay.  This is the turning point of the primarily east-west oriented coastline of southern New England and Long Island and the north-south oriented coastline of the mid-Atlantic. This unique geographic location concentrates marine and estuarine species migrating between the New York Bight and the Hudson and Raritan River estuaries.  Over 330 species of special emphasis and listed species are found here seasonally or year round, incorporating 48 species of fish and 120 species of birds.  The center of the bay is dominated by calm to extreme subtidal open water with numerous low-lying islands, salt marshes, intertidal flats, and uplands, all important for nesting waterbirds.

1. Hudson River, 2. East River, 3. Long Island Sound, 4. Newark Bay, 5. Upper New York Bay, 6. Lower New York Bay, 7. Jamaica Bay, 8. Atlantic Ocean

How You Can Help:

Until next week!

Garbage Girl