Streams

After Gowanus Canal Floods Its Banks, Fears of What's Left Behind

Friday, November 16, 2012

WNYC

Businesses along the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn fear toxic contamination may have tagged along with flood waters during Sandy’s vicious storm surge.

The waterway is a federal Superfund site and has been called one of the most contaminated places in the country, loaded with toxic chemicals. 

Some area businesses fear the storm carried those toxins into flooded basements.

“I see fuel oil, I smell it, I can taste it, said Christopher Webb, a local cinematographer. "All of that passed through my building, so the scum, that’s 3-and-a-half feet up the glass, is a stew of all those things.”

The Environmental Protection Agency said in a statement that it took four samples in the Gowanus Canal area on Oct. 31.  The samples came from the ground floors of two buildings that had been flooded, as well as directly across from the canal.

The agency found low levels of gasoline and diesel derivatives, consistent with road run-off.  But levels of semi-volatile organic compounds “were very low or not detected.”

What the EPA did find was high levels of bacteria, which it said reinforces the need for people to protect themselves when cleaning up flood waters that contain sewage and therefore bacteria.

Riverkeeper, a clean water advocacy group, also tested for bacteria and also found it to be extremely high.  

“It’s off the charts,” said Capt. John Lipscomb, who travels the canal frequently for Riverkeeper. “The amount of pollution released by this storm is staggering. Instead of it being one product like crude oil, it’s a thousand different products and floatables, and instead of being from one source like a tanker, it’s from a thousand different locations.”

But Lipscomb says it’s likely Sandy actually cleaned the Gowanus Canal initially, because it diluted the waterway with a surge of sea water. But the storm also pushed huge volumes of water into the city's wastewater treatment system, forcing it to overflow into the canal. 

The Riverkeeper patrol boat on the Gowanus Canal.
Amy Pearl/WNYC
The Riverkeeper patrol boat on the Gowanus Canal.
A local at the edge of the canal points out how high the water got during Hurricane Sandy.
Amy Pearl/WNYC
A local at the edge of the canal points out how high the water got during Hurricane Sandy.
Emulsified oil and debris at the end of the Gowaus near Union Street.
Amy Pearl/WNYC
Emulsified oil and debris at the end of the Gowaus near Union Street.
Amy Pearl/WNYC
A jumping fish makes a ripple in the grey sewage discharge near a "combined sewer overflow" (CSO) on the Gowanus. The CSO's are designed to flow in wet weather when runoff overwhelms the city's sewer

A jumping fish makes a ripple in the grey sewage discharge near a "combined sewer overflow" (CSO) on the Gowanus. The CSO's are designed to flow in wet weather when runoff overwhelms the city's sewer system. Riverkeeper's John Lipscomb notes that the fact that it is flowing in dry weather means something is wrong.

A green sign marks a combined sewer overflow (CSO).
Amy Pearl/WNYC
A green sign marks a combined sewer overflow (CSO).
Despite the poor water quality, muscles live in the canal.
Amy Pearl/WNYC
Despite the poor water quality, mussels live in the canal.
This boat came up from the cleanup site at the Battery Tunnel. They were hoping to get some coffee at a nearby Dunkin Donuts.
Amy Pearl/WNYC
This boat came up from the clean-up site at the Hugh L. Carey/Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. The crew was hoping to get some coffee at a nearby Dunkin' Donuts.

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Comments [2]

Karen from NYC

the MTA has been hosting millions of rats. Are we headed for a major public health crisis with dead drowned rats?

Nov. 16 2012 11:12 AM
Peter

I live near the Gowanus and share everyone's concern over potentially toxic floodwaters. I have canoed in the Gowanus and seen and smelled first hand how horribly fouled that water is. I rented a storage space in the basement level at Extra Space Storage on Third avenue at 1st Street, and it was flooded. The water was only an inch or two deep but of course it was a mess. But it never smelled or looked dirty – just salty. I had to dry out a couple of boxes of documents, spreading them all over my living room (on plastic bags and old towels) but never did I find any evidence that whatever water had flooded the place was toxic or contained sewage. For what it's worth...

Nov. 16 2012 08:38 AM

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