The Gowanus Canal Cleanup Will Cost Half a Billion Dollars


The Environmental Protection Agency released its plan for cleaning up the Gowanus Canal Superfund site yesterday, and as expected, the process is going to be complicated, time-consuming, and mind-bogglingly expensive.

Since its completion in the 1860s, the Gowanus Canal has been the home of virtually every high-pollution industry imaginable: cement makers, chemical plants, coal yards, gas works, ink factories, machine shops, oil refineries, paint factories, soap makers, and tanneries. All of these industries dumped their various strains of super-toxic filth into the canal, and without an effective way to circulate water in the canal (a flushing mechanism stopped working in the 1960s) it stayed put, settling to the bottom.

What sort of super-toxic filth are we talking about? Per the EPA:

Numerous sampling events have shown the sediments in the Gowanus Canal to be contaminated with a variety of pollutants, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), volatile organic contaminants (VOCs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), pesticides, and metals. PAH concentrations were found to be as high as 45,000 milligrams per kilogram (4.5 percent), and the contamination was found to traverse the entire length of the canal. Many of the detected contaminants are known carcinogens.

This noxious stew isn’t all an artifact from the golden age of industry, either. According to the EPA plan, at least 14 pipes emptying into the Gowanus are spitting heavy metals, volatile organic compounds, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons to this day.

The result, the EPA concludes, is a body of water so polluted that exposure to it “may result in a carcinogenic risk . . . above EPA’s target risk range.”

The EPA’s plan is to dredge nearly 600,000 cubic yards of toxic sediment from the bottom of the canal, then lay down multiple layers of gravel and sand to contain the remaining toxic sludge and protect it from being further disturbed by tides and boat traffic. What happens to the dredged sediment afterward has yet to be determined. The EPA also intends to institute new controls on the sewage outflows that empty into the canal. Meanwhile, state authorities are overseeing the cleanup of the most catastrophically polluted sites along the banks of the canal.

Add it all up, and the remediation process is anticipated to cost between $467 and $504 million. It won’t be done until 2020.

The agency will be accepting comments on the plan for the next three months, including two public meetings in January.

Remediation nerds can read the full plan below. A summary can be found here.

Gowanus Prap