Home featured Getting ‘Black Mayonnaise’ Out of One of America’s Dirtiest Waterways

Getting ‘Black Mayonnaise’ Out of One of America’s Dirtiest Waterways

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In the middle of the Gowanus Canal, across from a luxury apartment complex and waterfront promenade, a yellow excavator was perched atop a floating barge. Again and again this week, it plunged its claw into the murky water, emerging each time with a scoop of fetid black muck. After more than 150 years, the famously filthy canal in Brooklyn is finally being cleaned out.

Since the mid-1800s, industrial pollutants, raw sewage and storm runoff have accumulated in the waterway, making it one of the most contaminated in the country. As the surrounding industrial wasteland gave way in recent decades to gleaming apartments, and as restaurants and bars popped up on streets dominated by warehouses and parking lots, the noxious sediment — known as “black mayonnaise” because of its color and consistency — lurked below the water’s surface.

Now the canal is undergoing its own transformation. The Environmental Protection Agency has begun a $1.5 billion project to remove the sludge and clean the Gowanus.

The work could take more than a decade. But its onset is a milestone for the canal, which earned the nickname Lavender Lake for its unnatural hue.

The project also comes after decades of political maneuvering, as well as activism from nearby residents, some of whom had questioned when, if ever, the cleanup would take place.

ImageBrooklyn residents who pushed for the Gowanus cleanup gave “a collective sigh of relief" at seeing boats and equipment ready to start the project, one community leader  said.
Credit…Kevin Hagen for The New York Times

“There was a collective sigh of relief of sorts that we are actually seeing tangible vessels in the waterway, ready to work,” said Brad Vogel, the captain of a canoe club called the Gowanus Dredgers, which was formed in 1999 to support the dredging of the canal.

In recent years, developers and the city have eyed the surrounding neighborhood, also called Gowanus, as a target for the construction of new apartment buildings (a Whole Foods Market opened there in 2013). But the canal, ever filthy, helped maintain the area’s industrial character. Its designation as a Superfund site in 2010 kept even more development at bay.

While a successful cleaning could help turn the canal into an attraction, Mr. Vogel said it would not change the “feral and quirky” elements of the neighborhood that the dirty water helped spawn.

“The canal, because of its idiosyncrasies and the harm and imbalance that it’s been subjected to over time, certainly generated a unique community feel here in Gowanus,” Mr. Vogel said.

Carved out of a tidal wetland in the mid-1800s, the 1.8-mile canal that runs from Butler Street to Gowanus Bay was for many years a passageway for barges servicing oil refineries, chemical plants, tanneries and manufactured gas plants. Industrial waste gushed into the canal.

That flow slowed in the mid-20th century as maritime shipping declined. But sewage and storm-water runoff, which can include oil from city streets and other debris, have continued to pour in.

Credit…Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection, via Getty Images

An E.P.A. spokesman said the chemicals and sewage give the sediment its mayonnaise-like texture. Liquid tar, decomposing plants and carcasses, and other pollutants turn it black.

The sediment is, on average, 10 feet thick along the bottom of the canal, whose depth reaches about 40 feet near its mouth. It contains several contaminants, including high levels of cancer-causing chemicals known as PCBs and heavy metals like mercury and lead.

Between 1911 and the 1960s, attempts to flush the contaminants out through a tunnel did not eliminate the gunk or the putrid stench that sometimes emanates from the waterway. The flushing tunnel was put into operation again in 1999, shut down in 2010 because of equipment problems and restarted in 2014, according to the E.P.A.

Still, the presence of sewage and refuse swept off streets or tossed in by people — and the aroma — has imbued the canal with an almost fantastical aura.

People shared rumors that bodies were dumped in the waterway, which some sardonically referred to as Venice. In 2007, a small whale strayed into the mouth of the canal and died.

There were people who could recall lighting the water on fire, said Bob Lewis, 78, who has lived in the neighborhood for 35 years and watched the dredging unfold on Monday.

The dredging is divided into three phases corresponding to different segments of the canal. The first phase is expected to be completed in 2023. It includes dredging the upper section from Butler Street to the Third Street Bridge and layering the dredged channel with sand, gravel and other material to keep any remaining contamination from leeching out.

The dredged sediment will be processed at a facility in Jersey City, N.J., and transformed into a material that can safely be used to cover landfills, the E.P.A. said.

Mr. Vogel said he hoped that the dredging of the rest of the canal could be completed over the next decade.

For many residents, the project has been a long time coming. Matt Cline, 34, who lives in Gowanus, stood Monday on the promenade near the excavator with his baby slung to his chest. He smiled and took a selfie as the excavator behind him pulled up another pile of muck.

“I was definitely skeptical that it would ever happen,” Mr. Cline said.

But the pace of the effort has raised questions about what happens if sewage or other runoff flows back into the Gowanus, even after portions of the canal are dredged. As part of the cleanup plan, the city is expected to build two underground holding tanks to reduce the flow of raw sewage into the canal.

Credit…Kevin Hagen for The New York Times

The city and the E.P.A. have disagreed on the best plan for the tanks, and it is not clear how fast they can be built. The city’s Department of Environmental Protection estimated on Tuesday that the tanks could be ready by 2032.

Walter Mugdan, a deputy regional administrator for the E.P.A., said that until the tanks are completed, discharges from the sewer system will continue to flow into the canal. But he said the city would have to do “maintenance dredging” if the amount of discharge is excessive.

The city is also considering rezoning the neighborhood, which would bring in an estimated 8,200 units of housing. A formal public review of the plans begins in January.

Katia Kelly, 59, who is part of the Voice of Gowanus, an activist group, said the city should wait until the holding tanks and dredging were complete before considering more development. She worries that the rezoning could also push out small manufacturers and other businesses, she said.

“All of the buildings and all of what makes Gowanus Gowanus is going to disappear,” she said.

Brad Lander, the councilman whose district includes most of the area around the canal, said that the rezoning plans emphasize light manufacturing and the arts, despite a focus on new residential development. He said the plans were “premised on the idea of a clean canal” and surmised that the E.P.A. project would make Gowanus an even more attractive place to live.

Mr. Lewis and his wife, Julie Lewis, 76, shared an apprehension about the rapid changes in the neighborhood, but viewed the dredging positively.

“I’m glad it’s happening,” Ms. Lewis said. “They’ve been promising it for a long, long time.”

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