By Gary Buiso
The Gowanus Canal should be as clean as the waters off Coney Island—not Coney Island Creek, advocates for the polluted waterway urged at a standing-room-only forum recently. Even after improvements totaling roughly $140 million, the canal will only be bumped up one level on a state scale to a Class I waterway, same as the Coney Island Creek—which itself is contaminated with coal tars and a host of other organic compounds. “You’ll still have a body of water that you can’t even touch or dare consume a fish,” said Ludger Balan, the co-founder of the Urban Divers Conservancy, a group that regularly plunges beneath the canal’s hazardous depths. “This is not progress. It is not a clean water improvement by any one’s standards—and should never be.” Balan was among the citizen panelists at a recent forum held at the Belarusian Church on Atlantic Avenue entitled, “The Future of the Gowanus Canal.” The well-attended Dec. 6 event was sponsored by state Senator Velmanette Montgomery and co-sponsored by a host of elected officials and community groups. “This is really your meeting,” state Senator Velmanette Montgomery told the crowd. Peter Grannis, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), and Emily Lloyd, commissioner of the city’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) were scheduled to attend, but did not. Officials from the DEC, DEP, Army Corps of Engineers, and Environmental Protection Agency instead comprised the expert panel. They fielded questions from a table of local activists and advocates, including Balan; Marlene Donnelly of Friends and Residents of the Greater Gowanus (FROGG); Phaedra Thomas, executive director of the Southwest Brooklyn Industrial Development Corporation; and Bob Zuckerman, who heads the Gowanus Canal Conservancy as well as the Gowanus Canal Community Development Corporation. Each year, the 1.8-mile canal is the recipient of 300 million gallons of combined sewage overflows (CSO), the combination of storm water and raw sewage that is too much for the area’s aged sewer system to contain. With every rainfall comes the possibility of raw sewage. The city, compelled by a state consent decree to clean up the CSO’s, will soon spend millions to comply. Improvements include a modernization of the canal’s flushing tunnel, which pumps clean water into the canal, improving its dissolved oxygen levels. The plan also calls for an increase in the sewage pump station capacity, which is expected to reduce the sewage overflow. Parts of the city-led project could be completed by 2012, officials have said. Jim Olander, regional coordinator with the Environmental Protection Agency laid plain the stark truth for the crowd. “No matter how much money you will spend on the elimination of CSOs, there is a limit to improving the water quality in the canal,” he said. Still, Kevin Clarke, a chief engineer with the DEP, said the city’s plan will reduce CSOs by 34 percent. “This is a significant investment on the city’s part,” he said. Panelist Susanne Mattei, a regional director with the DEC, said the “immediate goal” for the canal is to meet the existing standards. Currently, the canal is considered an SD waterway—a classification that only supports the survival of fish. “It is a rock bottom classification,” she conceded. “They can’t even reproduce.” The lack of roe is cause enough for a row, those who have spent years advocating for better conditions in and along the canal said. “These are not improvements to be championed. To sustain such a low water quality is not an improvement,” Balan charged. Balan, with the protection of a wetsuit, regularly ventures where few dare. He finds inspiration in odd places. “I saw a school of striped bass screaming for air. It was inspiring…that they could survive,” he said. Mattei insisted that the state wants to see a cleaned up canal. “We want to improve, our goal is to improve,” she said. Federal officials agreed. “We are striving to achieve the best water quality,” Olander said. A Class I waterway is a category that allows fish to reproduce, and humans to engage in recreational activities like boating, canoeing and kayaking. The classifications are a measure of the dissolved oxygen in the water, as well as the concentration of microorganisms. Swimming is not allowed in a Class I waterway. “We have to take things one step at a time,” Mattei said. “We can’t lie to the public about the condition of the water.” The truth of the matter is that the canal, once a key driver in the Industrial Revolution, remains one of the most polluted waterways in the country. While state officials contend that the canal will not have the same standards as say, Coney Island, people like Balan wonder, why not? “We live in the most expensive city in the world, with quite expensive real estate, and certainly I cannot assume that we are short of scientific knowledge to get that clean-up done efficiently,” he said. Thomas, whose group is an advocate for local business and industry, said the canal still has a viable commercial role: The canal needs to be dredged, allowing better navigation for barges, she said. Mark Lulka, a project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers, said dredging—an extraordinarily expensive endeavor especially given contamination of the canal’s sediment—is not being contemplated until after a feasibility study on an ecosystem restoration project it is planning. It will take another two years for the Army Corps to produce a feasibility report for that project, and work could begin by 2012 or 2013. “To be honest,” he continued, “We haven’t had a request to [dredge]. Right now it’s not on the drawing board.” The DEP is planning a limited amount of dredging—about 750 feet at the head of the canal. That is not expected to take place until 2010-11, Clarke said. Diane Buxbaum, of the New York City Sierra Club, lives a few blocks from the canal. She told the panel she was disappointed with what she has heard so far. “I am very sad that we are aiming for a level that is Class I. Why do we have to set our goals so low? We should be aiming a lot higher,” she said. While city officials said they certainly take into account future development near the canal, as well as rainfall, Buxbaum was not sold. “We are spending a lot of money and not looking at what the future will bring—like an ostrich putting its head in the sand,” she said.