Brad Vogel’s heart sank Friday when he saw a small duckling following its mother through a greasy mat of “black mayonnaise” floating atop the Fourth Street Basin of the Gowanus Canal.
“This is part of the canal that was cleaned up,” Vogel says. “What is happening here?”
The noxious goo created a slimy sheen on top of the waterway that shimmered in the morning light as a saddened Vogel snapped a photo, then went to work trying to fix it.
He’s one of several local advocates who fear the Whole Foods-adjacent outlet — the only section of the Gowanus Canal to be cleaned in the 10 years since the Environmental Protection Agency declared it a Superfund site — is at risk of being polluted again as the neighborhood awaits a massive cleanup with an uncertain future.
The Fourth Street Basin waters in 2018 were cleaned — a process than involved shoveling tons of liquid coal tar out of the canal and then capping the muck that couldn’t be captured — as part of a test pilot program to learn how best to restore the entire canal.
But torrential downpours last week sent raw sewage barreling through Combined Sewer Overflows — an antiquated draining system that mixes storm water and sewage — into the canal.
And, for the first time since the cleanup, the onslaught mingled with the black mayo and oozed into the small area that was supposed to have been saved, Vogel, captain of the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club, says.
“Anytime that a person flushes the toilet or showers, all of that goes directly into the Gowanus Canal untreated,” Vogel says. “On Friday morning, I saw larges quantities turning into the Fourth Street Basin.”
The problem, explains local blogger Katia Kelly, is that the pollution might eventually sink and settle on top of the caps meant to keep black mayo from mingling in the canal waters and essentially undo the cleanup.
“Here was this only the only clean part of the canal and here CSO is coming,” Kelly says. “It goes down so deeply we’ll never get it out.”
Vogel, a member of the community advisory group that works with the EPA, reported the goo to the federal agency, which promised to consider installing a barrier, or boom, to keep more of the noxious stuff out.
But Vogel still has questions.
“What happens to this pollution if it goes out the rest of the basin and settles?” Vogel asks. “How do you clean that? Is it possible?"
The future of the Fourth Street Basin, and the rest Gowanus Canal, may be as murky as the waters themselves.
New York City — one of dozens of entities that bear financial responsibility for cleaning the canal under the Superfund site designation — is currently tightening its belt in the economic fallout of the pandemic currently spreading across the nation.
While the 2021 budget did not take funds away from a project to build two sewage retention tanks — which could hold and prevent about 12 million gallons of raw sewage from seeping untreated into the canal — the Department of Environmental Protection warned they could take more than the initially planned 10 years to install.
“DEP's budget for the Gowanus Canal sewage retention tanks remains unchanged and the work continues,” Director of Communications Director Edward Timbers says.
“However, due to the pandemic and uncertainty in revenues, the timelines of all DEP capital projects are being reviewed.”
But as Gowanus waits for its sewage tanks, it faces a rezoning proposal that could bring up to 20,000 bathroom-using new residents into the area, and, to further stir the waters, a hurricane season forecasters warn could be one of the most active in recorded history.
Friday’s black mayo appearance, and the uncertain future of the cleanup, haven’t left locals feeling optimistic.
“2020 seems to be full of bad news,” Kelly says. “Here it is floating right on top of our canal."