When It Comes To The Gowanus, NYC Just Isn’t Taking Shit Seriously

04/23/2012 11:37 AM |

That is...exactly what you think it is.
  • That is…exactly what you think it is.

It’s been a little more than two years since the Environmental Protection Agency named Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal a Superfund site, its highest toxic honor. But it still seems that city officials and the federal government are bickering over how to tackle clean up, especially when it comes to the city’s longstanding problem of sewage overflow. Despite the feds highlighting raw sewage and street runoff in the canal as a major source of its toxic sludge, city officials are shaking their heads and denying responsibility, reports the Daily News.

“The [sewer overflows] are really not what’s contaminating the canal with chemicals,” the Department of Environmental Protection’s Eileen Mahoney told the Daily News.

Until the 1960s, the canal had served as a dumping stream for many of the oil refineries, tanneries, and chemical and gas along the banks. But today the Gowanus is a dumping stream of another sort—each year the city’s combined sewer system (collecting both stormwater and sewage) gushes nearly 400 million gallons of waste into the canal when the system becomes overburdened by heavy rain. “PAHs and metals are the most prevalent contaminants detected in present-day CSO discharges to the canal, as well as in low volume discharges from a limited number of other outfalls,” the EPA noted in a 2011 remedial investigation report.

The EPA even showcases the Gowanus in its working definition of the issue. A 2011 report on the national problem of combined sewage overflows (or CSOs), links to a video from 2010 in which a horrifying tide of raw sewage rushes down the banks of the canal, leaving used condoms in its wake. The city has a plan in place to cut sewage overflow by 45 percent, but the EPA is looking to reduce or eliminate much more.

But city officials say the sewage isn’t responsible for the toxic sludge at the bottom of the canal, which comes from decades of industrialchemical pollution.

“At this point we don’t feel they’ve made a case that would justify such an extreme measure,” said Eileen Mahoney of the city Department of Environmental Protection.

DEP did its own analysis of the feds’ data to prove it’s not responsible for any risks to human health or ecology. [Daily News]

Last Wednesday, the DEP presented some of that analysis to Community Board 6, carefully noting differences regarding the jurisdiction of crappy environmental problems, according to Pardon Me For Asking. At the presentation, Mahoney and DEP rep Jim Mueller explained that their findings showed that CSOs weren’t contributing unacceptable amounts of toxins to the canal under the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), and that the separate issues of bacteria and dissolved oxygen levels were regulated by New York State.

It does make sense, however, that the DEP would want to point fingers elsewhere—the EPA has already named New York City as a “Potentially Responsible Party” (or PRP) in the Gowanus’ contamination. But despite protests, hopefully increased pressure on the city will at some point translate into decreased sewage in the canal. No one wants to be caught in a shitstorm, in the end.

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One Comment

  • Combined sewage overflow, although more visible, is not as serious as remedying the problem by piping the polluted water into sewage treatment plants. Here the toxic pollutants in the waste water are REMOVED, so the treated water can be returned to the canal, but the removed pollutants end up in the resulting sludge or biosolids, which is then conveniently shipped out of state and dumped on rural farm land as “fertilizer,” sickening people and animals, polluting wells, and degrading healthy soil. Biosolids generated in urban industrialized centers contain thousands of industrial chemicals. Every entity connected to a sewer is permitted to discharge, every month, 33 pounds of hazardous waste into sewage treatment plants. This includes hospital waste, superfund leachates and fracking fluids. In addition sewage treatment plants are breeding grounds for antibiotic resistant bacteria.
    Good news for the canal is bad news for the land where we graze our animals and grow our food. For the many serious risks associated with using sludge as fertilizer, visit
    http://www.sludgefacts.org