Conflict over Gowanus Canal Superfund Status

Add the Gowanus Canal clean-up to the long list of the things the city and the state can’t seem to agree upon. The announcement by the EPA last week that it was considering making the Gowanus Canal a Superfund site at the behest of the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation has the Bloomberg administration up in arms. The city, which has made reclaiming and rezoning the land along the canal a priority in recent years, says that the litigious Superfund process could take decades to play out given the long list of parties that is potentially liable. A comprehensive approach to the remediation of the canal is required, one that will not only cut off all upland sources to the canal but also will include an overall remedy to the canal itself, said a spokesperson for the state. “Of the 1,500 federal Superfund sites to date, no river cleanup has been successfully completed,” countered Daniel Walsh, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Environmental Remediation, at a public forum at PS 32 in Carroll Gardens last night. “This is not the EPA’s fault, but it does speak to the enormous complexity of identifying responsible parties and suggests that a cleanup could very likely take more than two decades.” Council Member David Yassky supports the involvement of the Feds, telling WNYC, “If [the canal]’s cleaned up, we can then have housing and restaurants and the whole waterfront life right alongside it. But first we gotta clean it up.” Toll Brothers has already threatened to walk away from its 577-unit project should the EPA step in; Hudson Companies, which is slated to develop the other large development project, is similarly frustrated by the 11th-hour curveball. One of Hudson’s principals, Alan Ball, provided us with this comment:

If the feds are not bringing any money, what do they add to solving the problem?Who are these deep pocket private responsible parties (PRPs) they think are out there? A GE, a Honeywell, an Exxon Mobil? If not, they are only looking at National Grid (Keyspan) and the City of New York and ultimately the tax payers and energy consumers of NYC. And why is this happening NOW after the City has finally after decades of delay – committed the funds to repairing the flushing tunnel and prepared a plan for addressing CSO events, the Army Corps is prepared to start dredging, and National Grid has committed to cleaning up the uplands areas through the NYS Brownfields Program.

The 60-day comment period has now begun. The Observer notes that sites that make it to the comment period “more often than not” end up getting designated.
Gowanus Plan Panned [NY Post]
Developers: Gowanus to Build or Not? [NY Observer]
Photo by emptysquare

0 Comment

  • It’s over. Any developer or investor will walk away immediately. If you live near there expecting a revival, sell.

  • that photo is really cool though

  • DIBS is right. Game over.

  • i thought the same thing gemini! does the canal really look like that? it’s odd but on saturday morning i went looking for the canal and couldnt find it. there was a discussion about it last week and i realized i want to see it. but i couldnt find it. i thought if you walk down union street youll hit it, but i kept walking and then i turned around cuz it didnt look like it was anywhere to be found. maybe i didnt walk far enough. i think i only went to like 3rd avenue?


  • If only there were maps on the internet…

  • So does anyone have a general idea about the contamination in the canal…

    My question is, basically… Is the Gowanus still actively being contaminated? i.e., toxins still continuing to leech into the water from the surrounding area. Or is it just the canal itself?

    In other words, if they came up with a glorious scheme to clean the water and the canal dirt… would that solve the problem? Or is it everything around it that remains a problem (in addition to the canal itself)?

    I’d really like to know — not just guesses. Everything I’ve read so far is very vague here. The article quoted in this post came the closest to answering this — “cut off all upland sources to the canal” — but it’s still not clear if the “upland sources” are the primary problem… or is it really just the canal?

  • Snark… you certainly are snarky…

  • If there’s any hope for the Gowanus neighborhood and the possibility of development, the City needs to fill it in right now. Don’t wait for the EPA. Just battle them in court after the fact for the next 30 years.

    It’s toast!!!

  • Having the feds come in and finally address the overall health of the canal is a godsend for people, like me, who live and work along the Gowanus.

    I attended last night’s meeting, and there is nothing at all that will prevent the city and state from continuing their own cleanup plans, including the flushing tunnel.

    I am so tired of the constant fear-mongering on the part of developers, and now the mayor’s office. You did nothing for us for years, and now your developer buddies are getting screwed after buying warehouses along a waterway that is obviously toxic? Cry me a canal.

  • I walked near the canal a few weeks ago on the Union St bridge and there was a swan and two duckies swimming in there.

  • I was at the meeting last night. I live and own in Gowanus/Carroll Gardens and welcome the proposed EPA clean up.
    Isn’t the Hudson Companies also developing Third and Bond? I think they are more worried of what Superfund status might mean for that project more than Public Place.
    What happens if the flushing tunnel propeller breaks again? There has already been dredging and repairs which have failed. Why not do a proper and comprehensive clean up? I thought USACE was prepared to dredge the length of the canal many years ago but the problem was disposal of the toxic sludge. If the EPA can resolve disposal why shouldn’t they be involved?

    I am not sure whether Toll has even closed on the site. The contract was contingent on obtaining a rezoning but I doubt there is a Superfund contingency. Toll claims to be financially healthy so they can wait it out or resell.

  • Thank God- I am as pro-development as it comes but this whole thing is a disaster waiting to happen…..

    The Gowanus canal vicinity is not suitable for human habitation, it just isnt….this isnt some B.S. “deadly mold” issue or some imaginary degenerative disease from silicone implants or even an exaggerated peanut allergy epidemic….this is REAL POISON

    Over a centuries worth of poisons have been manufactured, dumped, and processed in and around that canal – mercury, lead, PCBs, all of it is in and around there.

    And yet the local community, city and state want to allow private developers (who everyone here think are the devil – and who certainly have little Brownfield cleanup experience) to cleanup and build housing.

    It is insane – the cost to cleanup this land makes the economics of this IMPOSSIBLE (just look at what happened to Whole Foods – during a BOOM); and even if the state, city, Feds or polluters ponied up the fortune it would take, and even if the contractors actually were able to totally clean up the sites 100% – it is GUARANTEED that lawyers on Court St and beyond would be suing over ever instance of cancer, birth defect, lung disease or unexplainable laziness case that arises in these homes. The Government (and immediately bankrupt developers) litigation expenses will be enormous and cost us for decades. Not to mention how after the first 20/20 expose or 60Min piece (Probably entitled….”Brooklyn’s Bophal”) no insurance Company will ensure the properties and the values will plummet.

    All this hassle and expense to build in an relatively inaccessible (by mass transit) area, that has no great amenities.

    The city needs light manufacturing and distribution zones as well – the sooner this clean the Gowanus (for residential) nonsense dies – the better.

  • tybur6, I was at the meeting last night (you can find out more at, and the issues surrounding the contamination are indeed complex (yes, it is still being actively contaminated, according to the EPA).

    That’s why we need the EPA to develop a comprehensive plan, instead of any feigned attempts at spot-cleaning the canal.

  • feral,
    OK, you and I seem to have attended the same meeting. I was beginning to wonder if I were in an alternate universe.

    tybur6, raw sewage flows into the canal during even moderate rains. During heavy rains the canal can rise above its banks where they want to build housing. The website the feral posted has a screenshot of just some of the contaminants. And yes, the canal leeches onto adjacent properties.

  • Correct me if I’m wrong
    but if the canal is so horrible as you say FSRG, then why do many people still work and live in and around that canal and don’t seem to have 3 eyes and 3 nipples?
    am not trying to be snarky
    Just honestly curious
    I mean those business and homes have been on that canal for some 50+ years – wouldn’t the people have developed issues already?
    I hope they can clean it up, just not sure if I want to see more condo developements down in that area…..

  • gemini is right. it’s like everything these days people like to claim omg11!!1! toxic all our baybays are gonna grow third arms!!1! hello, it really isnt that bad. like the old saying says… what doesnt kill us makes us stronger.


  • This is not the EPA coming in to finally resolve the situation and make things happen. Exactly the opposite. A Superfund designation won’t make the cleanup of the canal happen any sooner. It will just create another forum for litigation. Not that I was really expecting anything to happen there even with a rezoning, but this just makes it certain that nothing will happen there, either cleanup or development, for another twenty years.

  • Rob,

    And I mean this with all due respect, before you claim “it really isn’t that bad” why don’t you find it first. I recommend a warm summer day for your stroll or immediately after a good rainfall. Then tell us it isn’t that bad.

  • geminin10 – I have no idea about the nipples of the current canal zone residents or their health – I am not even saying that living above, within, on top of will have a material effect on peoples health (I have no idea) – but I do know that as long as there is (or even mostly was) real toxic substances in the soil and canal, people (i.e Media and Lawyers) will blame all illnesses (real and imagined) on them and they will drum up hysteria (necessary or not) which will result in millions upon millions (if not billions) to deal with (either in cleanup, legal fees, or lost equity).

    The point is, it is irrelevant what the effect the presence of things like lead, asbestos, mercury, PCB, crude oil, distillates, sulfur and sewage actually has…in any scenario, developing housing makes no economic sense (unless it is the Government paying – in which case economics doesn’t enter into it (but sound policy should)

  • FSRG – ok got it!
    So then what is yours and Gowanusdog’s goal for that area?
    Do you want someone to clean it up enough so we can see parks,cafes and housing or do you want it clean enough so at least the present warehouses/homes don’t get further polluted
    if it was left alone – would it get worse?

  • There’s no doubt Gowanus needs to be cleaned up. There’s also no doubt that the developers will do their best to manage PR. But if anyone thinks that involving the Feds is going to lead to progress within the next 20 years, they’re out of their minds. As much as Bloomberg and his nanny-state, holier-than-thou, I’m-above-the-law ways tick me off, probably best to let him handle it … and the MTA … and Ground Zero (the latter of two being PERFECT examples of what happens when you ADD layers of government).

  • Yes, the canal really looks like that.

    Is there a link that could have been provided so that we can actually make our public comment? I’d love to have something on record, but I have no idea where to send my comment.

    I live on 3rd avenue and Carroll St, about 2 blocks away from the canal. It’s pretty nasty. I went to the city planning committee’s hearing on zoning a couple months ago and heard people describing the environmental craziness of the area and thought to myself “wow, that sounds like a Superfund site.”

    Gemini10: A lot of the people that live in my area have either lived in the area for decades or are renting rent-stabilized apartments. Personally, I can’t afford to move. So that’s why I stay there. I haven’t grown any extra extremities, though, I do realize that if I start to glow, I’ll be much easier to find in the dark.

    On a more serious note, because a lot of people that live in this area live in rent stabilized buildings that could have been destroyed for major high rises, and because the area is probably in need of an environmental overhaul, I don’t feel too badly about the possibility of this being classified as a Superfund site.

    I’m with Feral on the City’s take on this. Also, the fact that no river clean up of this magnitude has been successful is not even a halfway decent excuse for not attempting to do so. I would really hope that the city and developers would see that once the canal is cleaned up it’ll be a much more lucrative place to build on. It’d even be nice if someone saw that as some sort of incentive…

  • So, for you folk who think that designating it as a Superfund site will tie the area up in a hell of bureaucracy ensuring that the canal will not get clean:

    What’s the best way to get it clean? Any ideas? Even though I live in the area, I can honestly say I more than likely won’t get down there to start scrubbing myself, but I do recognize that it needs to be thoroughly cleaned…

  • gemini10 – I do not have a “goal” per-se; but frankly the area is and was working as a light manufacturing/distribution zone for some time – and could continue to do so if the properties were getting flipped on speculation that they can support housing.
    In terms of cleanup – how about we deal with the raw sewage dumping in there (when the processing plants get overloaded in heavy rains) first – fix that (nothing is even currently planned) and then we can discuss the necessity of dredging and ensuring proper water flow.

  • Gowanusdog: Thanks so much!

  • Sorry meant to say – if the properties WEREN’T getting flipped on speculation.

  • I really need to educate myself on that canal
    it’s funny b/c I live in south slope and can hear the ship forghorns all the time(which I love)
    I also drive and get totally annoyed when the drawbridge goes up on Hamilton so I have this weird romanticized vision of the canal
    anyway – thanks all for shedding some light
    I just don’t know what should or shouldn’t be done about the canal

  • Is the flushing tunnel currently operable?

  • Over the course of the thirty plus years that I have lived here any number of developers and activists have shown an interest in improving the Gowanus. I assume that they have been well meaning even if the intention was just to throw up shoddy over priced housing for yuppies, gen-xers, hipsters or what ever urban bohemians are next called. But the pollution issue is too big and can only be handled by a government agency.
    Toll Brothers have said that they will pull out, well we should not let the door hit them on the way out. This is probably a convenient reason to stop a project. Once the infrastructure, environmental and transportation issues have been improved then top quality developers will want be involved. Maybe Frank Gehry and Guggenheim or the Tate would like to throw up a groovy gallery to reflect the rich history of the Gowanus.
    The only people to be concerned are businesses that pollute and neglect their properties, the deranged hookers and the motorcycle clubs.

  • Does anyone know what is planned for the warehouse site at Nevins and Butler presently under demolition ?

  • G10, if you want to educate yourself, why not a canoe ride? I’m not sure if the Dredgers are still operating, I was a founding member but moved on to other things. This was started by a local architect and activist, Owen Foote.

    His philosphy was that the guvment wouldn’t clean it up because no one was using it, so he would prove that folx would use it, and the canoe club was a start.

    I have photos of a canoe trip I took at
    There are parts of the canal, the most interesting ones I might add, that cannot be seen from the street.

    The Canal is a really interesting place and I agree with those who would clean it up but leave the nabe alone.

  • Brooklyn used to be a really gritty, muscular, industrial city. It was not a resort town like Miami, Phoenix or Las Vegas. It created wealth by making things big and small. We have become such little girls when faced with anything that reminds us of that industrial legacy. “oooh chemicals!” Quick, call the federal government!
    The pollution in the water in the canal is mostly human waste from nearby businesses and brownstoners that overflow into the canal after heavy rains like the ones we have had recently. Even that would not be such a problem if the freakin flushing tunnel worked. That mechanism worked fine back in the days of horse and buggies but somehow we can’t get it to work properly today.
    The heavy metals and pcv’s, which by the way are in the Hudson and in the East River as well, are contained in the soil and muck under the water and on the banks. That’s what has to be dredged up and abated. it really isn’t rocket science. Let’s just get it done and quit acting like delicate flowers that will die at the very whiff of heavy industry.

  • sam – have you read any of the comments – or was that a rant you just wanted to make – even if it is completely irrelevant to the conversation?

  • Denton – VERY cool!!!!!

  • fsrq, the latter.
    thank you.

  • sam’s always cranky when the cafeteria at the home runs out of tapioca at lunch.

  • and snarky gets really snarkescent when his mommy forgets to include his action figures in his lunchbox.

  • Is that paved with lapis lazuli???

  • I’m appropriating the word “snarkescent.” Thanks Gramps.

  • no problem junior.
    did the bullies take your lunch money again today?

  • This is the address that was given at the meeting for folks to post comments to the EPA.

  • Ugh, just fill the canal in already and call it a day. The canal has been such an eyesore and a nuicense for decades already.

  • Any chance we can get superfund status for the Gowonus Houses? You want to improve the neighborhood blow up those projects and make a nice big park. The real estate around here would triple overnight.