Gowanus Canal Cleanup Reveals Sunken Fire Island Ferry

The sunken boat at low tide yesterday morning.
The sunken boat at low tide yesterday morning.
EPA

Ever wondered what kind of junk sits at the bottom of the Gowanus Canal?

Yesterday the Environmental Protection Agency launched a pilot debris removal project in the Fourth Street Turning Basin, better known to Brooklynites as the dirty water next to Whole Foods. It’s the beginning of a seven-year, $506 million detox for the 1.3-mile Superfund site, and it will remove everything from hubcaps to a pair of sunken ships, one of which served as a ferry to an exclusive Fire Island resort for more than 20 years before becoming a floating queer-friendly art space.

“This is the first phase of remediation of the Gowanus Canal,” said EPA community involvement coordinator Natalie Loney. “At the end of this process, you will have a cleaner canal.”

The Gowanus, built in the middle of the 19th century and long used as a dumping ground for sewage, effluent from nearby gas plants, and other noxious substances, was designated a Superfund site in 2010. The program requires polluters and their successor companies, led in this case by National Grid and the City of New York, to cover the entire cost of cleaning up the mess.

The EPA used sonar to map debris in the basin’s murky water, finding items including a felled tree and two wrecked ships. Over the next four weeks between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m., contractors will remove 36 large objects from the basin, transporting them by barge to a staging area at the corner of Smith and Huntington streets. From there, debris will be shipped by truck or barge to its final resting place, which EPA says will be determined by each item’s level of toxicity.

Monitors have been installed around the basin to keep tabs on air quality during the work, and crews have installed a floating orange “turbidity curtain” to keep material in the canal out of the work area. EPA says work will continue whether or not a combined sewer overflow dumps raw sewage into the canal when it rains.

Debris removal is necessary before contaminated sediment is dredged from the basin next year and a cap is installed on the canal floor to keep any remaining toxins from leaking out. After work is complete on the Fourth Street Turning Basin, crews will turn to other sections of the canal, with completion expected in 2022. In all, 588,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment will be removed, enough to fill Yankee Stadium.

Crews are beginning with the largest items, including a 63-foot ship built in 1943 for use in World War II. In 1963, the military sold the vessel to the Point O’ Woods Association, which rehabbed it as a ferry to the Fire Island summer community until 1985. From 1989 until 2003, it served as a houseboat in the Bronx before it was moved to the Gowanus Canal in 2005 to become an arts and community space. The following year, it began serving as a queer- and trans-friendly space known as the S.S. Gay, until sinking in 2009. 

The second submerged vessel is a 19-foot motor boat. None of the debris identified in the basin was deemed to be of historical significance.

Cleaning up the canal could help pave the way for new development. The area around the canal, which is becoming one of Brooklyn's fastest-gentrifying neighborhoods, is already seeing new residential construction and was the subject of a two-year community planning process called “Bridging Gowanus.” A neighborhood rezoning, at the urging of Council Member Brad Lander, looks increasingly likely. On Thursday, the Department of City Planning will kick off its Gowanus Neighborhood Planning Study with a public meeting at PS 32 at 6:30 p.m.


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