News & Culture in Carroll Gardens, Cobble Hill, Boerum Hill and Points Nearby
January 18, 2021
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News + Views

Of Killer Fish and Toxic Mud

By Lisa M. Collins
Ugly is Pretty: The Gowanus Canal features very old coal tar slicks, and brand new contamination
Photo by Joshua Kristal

It was the fish that did it. Not to mention the mud that dissolved a testing tube.

In November of 2009, a group of EPA officials toured the Gowanus Canal on the edge of Carroll Gardens. Nearing the mouth of the canal, in Red Hook, the officials ran into two men standing on a pier. The men were fishing, in the canal, near a sign reading, “Hazard: No Fishing.”

The enviro-bureaucrats approached the men. They noticed a bucket filled with ten fish.

“Do you eat the fish?” the EPA officials asked.

“Yes, we eat them,” the men replied. “If we have a good day like this, we’ll sell the extra to restaurants.”

And that was about it. The threat to general health posed by the potential that people, however few, however lacking in good judgment, would eat fish from the seriously polluted waterway was the legal basis for designating the Gowanus Canal a federal superfund, said Walter Mugdan, the EPA’s Superfund Division Director for Region 2, at a panel discussion at the Museum of the City of New York, at 103rd St. and 5th Ave. earlier this week.

The threat that fish swimming into and out of the canal could then infect and harm the wider ecosystem also played a roll, Mugdan said.

“If we could find the 500 or so people and say, ‘We’ll pay forever for you to buy fish at the grocery store,’” it would be “infinitely” cheaper than the hundreds of millions it will cost to clean the canal, Mugdan said. “But, then we wouldn’t clean the canal.”

The EPA designated the 1.8-mile-long waterway, on the edge of Carroll Gardens and Boerum Hill, a federal Superfund in March 2010, and ordered a cleanup that is expected to start in 2015 and last ten years. “The clean water act says that all water in the U.S. must be fishable and swimmable,” Mugdan said. The law said the goal must be reached by 1983.

Around the same time the EPA discovered the fishing men (as the federal agency was trying to determine whether to designate the canal a Superfund or not), a sample of mud was taken from the bottom of the canal and poured into an EPA sediment testing tube. One slice of the sediment was left in the tube on a Friday evening, and placed in a refrigerator. By Monday morning, the muck had eaten through the tube, and was all over the bottom of the fridge.

“The mud is highly contaminated,” Mugdan said.

It’s mud that is the focus of the EPA’s $300 million to $500 million clean-up. The cleanup is supposed to begin in 2014, and take 10 to 15 years to complete–so, the process will not be done until 2024 at the earliest. The cost will be paid by responsible parties, including the city of New York, the U.S. Navy and a legacy of natural gas companies culminating in National Grid.

Many locals are thrilled by the potential for a big cleanup. But many are also concerned about how it will affect local real estate.

The impact of the Superfund on development around the canal was the topic on Tuesday when about 120 attendees braved icy sidewalks and a bitterly cold, snowy night to head up to Harlem for the discussion. The panel included developer Alan Bell and Carter Strickland, Jr., Deputy Commissioner for Sustainability at New York City Department of Environmental Protection.

When the Superfund was announced in March, two condo developments were in the works for the west bank of the canal. Renderings of the developments at that time showed grassy knolls and bike paths near a blue canal and apartment buildings in the backdrop.

The developers pulled out of the deals when the Superfund was announced.

“Since the designation has come out, we’ve been at a dead stop,” Bell said.

Mugdan said in his opinion, the developers didn’t do a good job, “thinking of the mud.”

The city isn’t thrilled either, for it’s already spending $140 million on a sewer system upgrade to reduce sewage overflows into the canal during heavy rains.

“How much are we going to spend?” Strickland said. “We can’t protect everything.”

Mugdan said it’ll be 2020 or later before the sediment in the canal is cleaned. Dredging is an option, as is building a wall 40 to 50 feet into the ground along the banks of the canal, to prevent the continual seepage of contaminants into the water.

The EPA will spend this year determining exactly how the canal will be cleaned.

Three locations carry the most severe pollution, Mugdan said, and continue to seep contaminants into the canal. The locations are the sites of former natural gas plants. In 1860, when the canal was developed from an oyster bed into a industrial waterway, New Yorkers used natural gas to light their homes. The gas was made from coal.

“It was a very, very messy business,” Mugdan said.

The process created coal tar, which “never ever dries. It always oozes,” Mugdan said.

National Grid now owns that property, and will have to pay for the cleanup there. That’s how Superfund sites work, Mugdan explained. Current owners pay for the cleanup, even if contamination occurred before their time, unless the new owner can prove total ignorance of the contamination at the time of the purchase. Companies constantly sue each other over how to split up the cost, and that will probably happen here, Mugdan said.

Mugdan said the real estate and residential development plans for the banks of the Gowanus—including one slated for a lot on a highly-contaminated site–had “absolutely nothing” to do with the Superfund designation.

However, if development does move forward there, “it’s most important that land under the development is safe,” he said.

Some of the pro-development folks say they think the timing of the Superfund announcement is suspicious, as it came after years of inaction, and right as development plans were moving forward.

The panelist for the development point of view, Bell, a senior partner with Hudson Companies real estate, a partner in a the dashed proposal to build 770 apartments along the canal, said it was strange timing for the announcement. The city had “finally” paved the way for development, rezoning the land, coming up with an agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to clean the water, and budgeting more than $100 million to upgrade the sewer system, so that raw sewage doesn’t flood the canal during heavy rains.

“It’s ironic,” Bell said.

After the meeting I called Buddy Scotto, of Scotto’s Funeral Home, on Court Street, to discuss the canal. Scotto was a leader in cleaning the canal and upgrading the sewer system back in 1978. He was vocally against the Superfund designation, and took the call though he’s vacationing in Florida.

Scotto says the canal is clean enough for development. He says the Superfund designation was politically motivated, and unnecessary. He supports the development of affordable and senior housing along the canal, and says such construction would increase everyone’s property values.

“We have seniors who were born and raised here who can’t afford to live here, and that’s criminal,” Scotto said.

Some powerful people were against residential development along the canal, for myriad reasons, Scotto said. Some wanted the canal to return to its roots as a natural estuary, others didn’t want to see the housing.

Ultimately, those forces were successful.

Scotto says he thinks the feds want credit for a clean canal once condos are built there.

“They want credit for cleaning it up,” Scotto says. “The canal is ready for development, yesterday.

“It’s a political football, like everything else.”

Read our story on the EPA’s recent report describing the pollution in the canal, and warning people not to touch the water in any way.

Will it affect local chickens? Probably not.

For more on our local environment, read our story about how Carnival Cruise ships and a money battle is causing local air pollution.


South Brooklyn Post will cover more Gowanus news as it happens. Let us know if you have specific questions and we’ll try to get them answered.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is holding a public meeting to answer questions on Wednesday, Feb. 23, from 6:30 to 8:30, at P.S. 32, located at Hoyt Street between President and Union.


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