10/05/2013 09:51 am ET

Government Shutdown Leaves Toxic Canal Festering In Brooklyn


For the creatures that inhabit New York’s waterways and the people who care about them, the week started off with some encouraging news. On Monday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that it had finalized plans to clean up the Gowanus Canal, a festering, toxic wound in the middle of Brooklyn.

Then came the government shutdown and the EPA’s announcement that it was sending home 94 percent of its workers. Around the country, work stopped at hundreds of toxic “Superfund” sites -- contaminated areas that the federal government has designated for cleanup. In Brooklyn, the efforts stopped before they even began.

“All the good news and good will we had on Monday has kind of been put on hold,” said Phillip Musegaas, the Hudson River program director of Riverkeepers, a New York environmental group.

The Gowanus Canal is one of the most polluted waterways in America. Several feet of toxic sludge line the bottom, and a network of sewer pipes spews filth into the sluggish currents after it rains. People have been joking about the Gowanus since at least the early 1900s, when locals sarcastically dubbed it “Lavender Lake,” after the fragrant purple flower, a perfume staple.

Back then, factories lined the banks, producing gas for Brooklyn’s parlor lamps. Most of the gasworks shut down long ago, but they left behind a memento in the form of the poisonous waste that spilled into the waterway and settled on the bottom.

A Superfund cleanup is invariably a huge, complicated undertaking. On Monday, the EPA revealed that the Gowanus cleanup will cost $506 million, last eight to 10 years, and will involve dredging the toxic sludge from the bottom and controlling the flow of contaminated waste from the sewers. The city, the federal government and local businesses will all help cover the expenses.

The canal gained its Superfund status in 2010, after years of squabbling among local residents, politicians and real-estate developers. Developers have long entertained visions of luxury condos overlooking the waterway, but they worried that the Superfund process would give the canal a stigma that would bring down the value of the adjacent properties.

Efforts to clean the canal are nearly as old as the canal itself, and the government shutdown is just the latest in a long line of setbacks whose sources include bureaucratic neglect, a hurricane and a big piece of driftwood. In 1911, the city built a tunnel with a propeller that kept the water flowing from the canal into a connecting channel. But the propeller broke in the 1960's, and the canal was left to molder. The city fixed the propeller in 1999, but within a year, a 10-foot piece of driftwood had lodged into its blades. The propeller hasn’t worked consistently since.

Some help arrived in 2010, when the city installed a system of pipes that breathed oxygen into the canal, transforming the water into a habitat suitable for crabs and some species of fish.

Then Hurricane Sandy struck New York, wiping out part of the system. Now the only creatures found in the water are tiny minnows that drift up from the harbor. Last year, the canal made headlines when a dolphin blundered into it, captivating onlookers. That story didn’t end well: After about a day the dolphin was dead.

Four days after the government shutdown began, the canal looked more or less the same as it always looks. Like the government itself, the water was barely moving. A candy-striped party balloon floated along slowly, providing a rare fleck of brightness amid the pea-soup green. Abandoned buildings and weedy lots were reflected in the water’s oily sheen.

In a warehouse near the water, Joseph Guido Sr., a local stonecutter and the president of Foro Marble Co. Inc., said he wasn’t too worried about the shutdown.

“I’ll cut it for you in a few seconds,” he said, in the parlance of his trade. “Next week it’s gonna be all over and it’s still gonna take 20 years to clean the canal.”