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Year in Review: Top Gowanus Canal Stories of 2011

Headlines from the final year before the Superfund cleanup begins

Before being designated a federal superfund site in 2010, the Gowanus canal was known mostly for its strong stench, which stemmed from years of pollution caused by shipping, sewage runoff, and industrial use.

Yet with cleanup on the way and developers knocking on the door, more people are calling for recognition of the critical role that the canal has played in the city’s history. Many are finding that beneath all the muck and dilapidation there are important stories to be told—and even a little charm.

Here are just of few of our canal-related headlines from the past year.

Superfund cleanup still in planning stage

The federal Gowanus cleanup project, which is expected to take a decade and cost hundreds of millions of dollars, is still in its planning stages. But federal investigators are already busy performing tests and doing surveys in order to formulate their plan of attack.

In February, confirmed what everybody already knew—the Gowanus is filthy. Among the pollutants found were mercury, lead, copper, PCBs, and human waste.

“The findings of the investigation of the Gowanus Canal confirmed that contamination of the urban waterway is widespread and may threaten people’s health, particularly if they eat fish or crabs from the canal or have repeated contact with the canal water or sediment,” said EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck in a statement.

At a public meeting , Enck went into further detail about some of the challenges the cleanup faces. For example, no matter how successful the feds are in their cleanup of the waterway, they are legally prohibited from touching the banks of the canal, which fall outside of their jurisdiction. It is incumbent upon the city to remove the tons of coal tar that have accumulated there, lest runoff continue to plague the canal.

In October, the EPA revealed for the cleanup which include dredging and then capping and re-soiling the bottom of the canal.

To landmark or not to landmark?

Late last year, the Historic Districts Council of New York City on its list of “Six to Celebrate”, a roster of neighborhoods needing greater attention from preservationists. They argue that buildings from the area’s industrial past—such as the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Power House on Third Avenue, built in 1902— deserve to be recognized and protected.

Some local figures, however, think that development must be pursued at all costs; especially given the stigma attached to the superfund designation. "I'm all for landmark designation—I fought like hell for it in the late 60s and 70s," said Buddy Scotto, the “unofficial mayor” of Carroll Gardens. "But to tell you the truth, I don't see a hell of a lot down there that's suitable for landmark preservation. Most of them are run-down, underutilized and in some cases absolutely dilapidated multi-story buildings that are totally inefficient for manufacturing."

Canoeing adventures and canalside parties

A few hardy souls have begun using the canal as a site for adventuring and partying. After a year hiatus, DJ’s Earnon Harkin and Justin Carter at Gowanus Grove each Sunday this past summer.

Another group, the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club, offers free canoe rides on the canal during summer months. Two of our editors took them up on the offer, and

NYC Department of Environmental Protection begins refurbishing Gowanus flushing tunnel

The city undertook a $140 million project to revamp the Gowanus flushing tunnel, which this year. The tunnel was originally built to bring clean water from the Buttermilk Channel to the stagnant Gowanus canal.

The cleanup project involves digging under DeGraw Street and removing polluted water. The current worksite is located on the corner of Columbia Street in the Columbia Waterfront District.

Unfortunately, things have gotten off to a rocky start. In July, after falling into a pit dug by the contracting crew hired by the city. Then, last week, the same crew drilled too far under a nearby building, causing Luckily, no one was hurt.

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