A Man, a Plan, a Canal. Some People, Many Plans, the Gowanus Canal.


It’s been called a stinking, cancerous sore. A disgrace to Brooklyn. The spine of our deterioration. Lavender Lake. What is it? Why, the Gowanus Canal of course, a small waterway on the Western shore of Brooklyn with a big reputation for being nasty. Once a creek that ran amidst wetlands, indigenous planting grounds and streams, the Gowanus was seized by the Dutch and reformed (literally) into a canal that would serve the interests of shipping. And it was downhill from there—a victim of both pre-industrial and industrial stupidity that turned its once-clear waters into a toxic sludge of carcinogens, coal byproducts and a slurry known as “black mayonnaise” that made its waters unfit to support even basic marine life. Hence, the epithets.

As the canal soured, so did public opinion around it—and calls for government intervention started before Brooklyn even became a borough: It was called a public disgrace as early as 1877, and by 1889, the Legislature got in the mix and decreed that it should be closed and covered over forever. Since then, industrial uses around the waterfront have waxed and waned, as everything from paint factories to tanneries to petroleum processing plants have dumped their share of poisons into the water, and solutions for fixing it have been a dime a dozen. So far, none of them have worked.

But, as industries have changed and one problem polluter has passed the shit baton to the next, one source of contamination has remained constant: human waste. As Brooklyn’s population spiked in the 19th century, raw sewage from human homes ran straight into the canal, killing fish and bonding with other toxic elements to create a jelly of poison on the water’s floor. But even when the city modernized and installed sewer systems, they couldn’t keep up with growth. One early engineering decision would prove disastrous. Like most cities in the United States, New York chose to build a sewer system that combined water runoff with human sewage, using the same pipes to carry toilet waste as pipes to carry overflow from a rain-slicked street. This system, which SJT wrote about in an earlier post, is not large enough to handle the city’s waste when it rains, and the Combined Sewer Overflow has to be released somewhere. And what better place than a derelict dump of standing water, aka the Gowanus?

For years, the city has allowed this overflow to flood the Gowanus with each rainstorm. But as the surrounding neighborhoods have begun to gentrify and the EPA swooped has declaring the canal a Superfund site, the pressure to clean up the area—and address the source of the problem—has amplified.

Finally, a neighborhood that has been ravaged by environmental devastation and its attendant environmental racism is slated for a makeover.

But the EPA and the City’s Department of Environmental Protection’s original plan—which called for two giant underground tanks that could catch runoff and keep a good portion of it out of the waterways—has since been made over itself.

After months of planning for the tanks, an eminent domain seizure of canal-adjacent property, and $30 million in operation costs, the DEP pivoted on its heels and announced an entirely new project to the neighborhood’s Gowanus Canal Community Advisory Group. Instead of two large tanks, which would hold a combined 12 million gallons of sewage overflow but could not be expanded once built, the DEP proposed tunneling under the canal for a half mile, creating a 16 million gallon subterranean holding tank that could be pumped and expanded when it reached capacity.

The tunnel has its perks. It holds more waste than the tanks, diverting 90% of overflow from the canal. And it’s expandable. It’s also 150 feet underground, which would spare Gowanus residents—long afflicted by smells, construction and dust—the annoyances of an above-ground project. But it’s more expensive—$50 million more than the $1.2 billion tank project—and might not offer enough bang for the residents’ buck. Some residents are suspicious of the project’s timing, comparing it to Governor Cuomo’s recent chaotic reversal on the L train shutdown—and think that they should fund a project that goes far enough the first time. They also worry that the project will take even longer than the tanks, pushing back a clean Gowanus timeline to the late 2030s, as opposed to the early 2030s timeline projected for the tanks. The DEP, for its part, says the wait is worth it, and argue that a tunnel under a canal is the true solution to the Gowanus’ toxic blues.

Before either project can go forward, the EPA has to make a decision, but with the government shutdown and the Trump administration’s polluter-friendly “regulations,” some fear that the cleanup will occur at all—at least in the near future. The future of the canal seems to rest on residents and concerned citizens who can make enough of a fuss to see the spine of their deterioration turned into the straight spine of the resistance.

Learn more about the history and current status of the Gowanus Canal on a private tour of our Environmental Justice in Gowanus Tour, or stay tuned for upcoming public tour dates, starting May 2019.

Ash Sanders