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Gowanus Canal cleanup so behind schedule, 2nd dredging may be needed, watchdog says

Posted on March 27, 2024

The $1.5 billion effort to rid the Gowanus Canal of toxic sludge is so behind schedule and over budget due to government mismanagement that the canal may have to be re-dredged, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s watchdog.

The fetid canal is in the midst of a cleanup involving the removal of 600,000 cubic yards of cancer-causing coal tar, and the construction of two combined sewer overflow tanks that would limit toxic waste in the waterway. But the project is more than six years behind schedule. Its budget has ballooned to 13 times its original $78 million projected cost and the tanks still haven’t been installed.

The EPA’s inspector general wrote in a report last week that toxic sewage is still being dumped into already-cleaned parts of the canal during heavy rains — exposing residents to contaminants and raising the possibility those sections will need to be cleaned again.

“New York City will incur additional expenses if already dredged portions of the canal need to be re-dredged to remove sediments deposited by [combined sewer overflows] that would have been contained in the CSO tanks, had they had been constructed on time,” EPA Inspector General Sean O’Donnell wrote in his audit.

About 60% of the city uses a combined sewer system, which collects stormwater runoff, domestic sewage and industrial wastewater in the same pipe. Under normal circumstances, that water goes to a treatment plant. But during heavy rain, the amount of water exceeds the pipes’ capacity and raw sewage is dumped into waterways, such as the Gowanus Canal.

The canal is one of the nation’s most seriously contaminated bodies of water, according to the EPA. Tanneries, oil refineries and numerous other industries in the area began using it as a dumping ground in the 19th century. It was placed on the EPA’s Superfund list of heavily contaminated sites in 2010, which initiated the cleanup process. Companies responsible for the contamination help foot the bill.

The EPA said in 2013 that the city should address the canal’s problems by building two combined sewer overflow tanks to prevent “untreated water” from being dumped into the canal. An initial project timeline called for the city to build and install the tanks by September 2022.

Now, both tanks are projected to be completed by March 2029. But the city calls that new timeline “extremely aggressive,” according to the watchdog report. In February, the EPA regional administrator overseeing the canal project called the city’s work on the tanks “highly satisfactory.”

The report cited several reasons for the delay, including city and federal officials’ failure to agree on multiple aspects of the project, including its design and schedule. The overflow tanks are now in the early stages of construction.

“DEP has a productive working relationship with EPA and we are aligned on a vision for a cleaner Gowanus Canal,” city Department of Environmental Protection spokesperson Douglas Auer wrote in an email. “We continue to push forward on an accelerated construction schedule in order to move this major infrastructure project along.”

The agency noted that dredging is overseen by the EPA. But the EPA would not comment about the possibility of having to re-dredge the canal.

“They’re now dredging 600,000 cubic yards of this cancer-causing coal tar crud that’s all along the bottom of the canal,” said Walter Hang, president of Toxics Targeting, which tracks contaminated areas. “The problem is they haven’t abated the sources of pollution. And so the pollution continues to migrate into the canal.”

An EPA watchdog wrote that delays in cleaning up the canal have resulted in raw sewage being dumped in parts of the waterway that have already been dredged.

The audit was launched in response to inquiries from New York Rep. Nydia Velázquez, whose district includes the Gowanus Canal, and a complaint to an EPA hotline asserting the city and federal government were botching the job.

The Voice of Gowanus, an advocacy group critical of the cleanup, took credit for the initial complaint that prompted the watchdog report.

“EPA, the State of New York, and the City of New York simply ignored the endemic failure to comply with both the Superfund law and the Clean Water Act during a rushed redevelopment process that will ultimately increase the number of New Yorkers exposed to known contaminants,” the group wrote in an email.

The inspector general wrote that delays to the project could cost taxpayers an additional $50 million. He recommended that the EPA regional administrator overseeing the project “take immediate action” if the cleanup continues to stall.

Advocates with the Voice of Gowanus have long said the land around the canal also needs to be remediated due to its industrial past. They say contamination continues to flow through stormwater runoff from shuttered gas plants where energy was extracted from coal and oil.

The bottom of the canal contains an array of toxic chemicals including mercury, lead and compounds known as PCBs and PAHs, according to environmental experts.

“The primary exposure risks to humans come from the ingestion of fish and crabs from the Gowanus Canal and full-body immersion activities, such as swimming,” the inspector general wrote.

A virtual meeting on the project’s progress takes place monthly. The Gowanus Canal Community Advisory Group’s next assembly will be on April 23 at 6:30 p.m.


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