The Gowanus Canal Is Terrifying, Filled With Shipwrecks and Will Cost Millions to Clean Up


Sometime very soon, the Environmental Protection Agency will release its final plan on how to clean up the incredibly polluted Gowanus Canal, a process that’s expected to take years and cost $550 million. In the meantime, stop fishing there. No, seriously, that’s something that people are still doing. Fishing. In a canal that’s bright green and smells overwhelmingly like an army of demonically-possessed feet. After designating Brooklyn’s smelliest waterway as a Superfund site back in 2010, the feds began talking about how to actually clean it up. The main issue is that people have been dumping contaminants and various other things in there for 144 years, including, we are not kidding, at least four shipwrecks. And the practice of using the canal like an enormous, watery trash can continues to this very day.

The Gowanus has been used as an industrial waterway since the 1860s, with ink and paint factories, cement mixers, oil refineries, and tanneries all making their home by the water’s edge. A recent report by the New York Times visited some of the scrap metal and concrete companies still operating there, and still, it appears, throwing stuff in the water. Environmental group Riverkeeper recently filed suit against three companies, accusing them of letting dirty storm water run off their sites and right into the canal. As the NYT notes, one of the companies, Benson Metal, was also fined $85,000 last year for dropping some of their scrap metal directly into the water.

Dirty water and jagged metal are two of the tamer things the feds will have to deal with in their cleanup of the site. According to a proposed cleanup plan released by the EPA in December 2012, the canal contains pesticides, volatile organic compounds, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are atmospheric pollutants caused by burning fuel, and polychlorinated biphenyls, also known as PCBs, which were once used in old electrical equipment and are now banned in the U.S. as being hazardous to human health. There’s some evidence that they cause cancer, neurotoxicity, and other things you don’t want contaminating your fish dinner. There’s also layer upon layer of contaminated sediment at the canal’s bottom, 307,000 cubic yards or so, which the EPA calls ‘highly contaminated.”

And then, of course, there are the shipwrecks, “at least” four of them, according to the cleanup plan, “and a high likelihood that several other ship hulls have survived within the fill of the 1st Street basin.”

And despite both the smell of the canal and warnings posted nearby, the EPA found, “the canal is regularly used for fishing, particularly subsistence fishing by several
separate environmental justice communities surrounding the canal.” An “environmental justice community” means lower-income people who are disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards. Like, say, consuming fish from the Gowanus in order to survive, despite the fact they’ll likely never be particularly safe to eat. Nor should you swim there, something the EPA found people don’t seem to do very often, for some reason.

The proposed cleanup plan involves dredging up the contaminated sediment, stabilizing it with concrete, and then covering it with layers of clean material, including a type of clay that will remove any polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons that might well up. Layers of sand and gravel would be placed over all that, to keep everything contained, with a final layer of clean sand intended to “restore the canal bottom as a habitat.” The whole thing will take at least ten years, with regular maintenance lasting forever.

All this is according to the most recent plan proposal, released in February. But it’s possible the forthcoming new plan will have some different ideas, like, say, throwing our hands up and running away at top speed. The full EPA report on everything that’s wrong with the Gowanus is below.

EPA Gowanus Cleanup Report