Archives for category: Superfund
After two months of investigating, researching and reporting, 8th grade students from Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies wrote investigative news articles about the Gowanus Canal. Each student chose their own angle and investigation to focus on. Here is one of our favorites about coal tar contamination in the Canal. 
Coal tar has been polluting the canal since the 1800’s and will be dredged out of the Canal during the Superfund clean-up process. For more about the clean up, see Gowanus Superfund.

Coal Tar In The Gowanus Canal

By: Maryory Martinez

New Tourist Attraction?

Niagara Falls, the Statue Of Liberty, Yellowstone National Park, and now the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn? There has been a new addition to the list of grand tourist attractions in the United States. A very peculiar one. Unlike other tourist attractions, the Gowanus Canal isn’t gaining publicity and tourists because of its “beauty” or its “history.” The Gowanus Canal isn’t beautiful and that’s exactly what’s luring people there. The foul smell. The filthy green water. The disgusting coal tar hidden in the depths of that water. That is luring people there. But people seem to ignore the obvious problem that the canal is facing. Coal tar is still in the canal and continues contaminate the water and the environment around it.

Severely Polluted Water

Since the late 1800s, factories and waste treatment plants would get rid of their wastes in the Gowanus Canal (Clean Water Act of 1972). Slowly, this resulted in the accumulation of coal tar on the canal’s floor, severely polluting the water. Coal tar is a thick, black liquid produced by the refining of coal that carries hazardous chemicals such as benzene, anthracene, and phenol ( This makes the canal unsafe for recreational activities such as swimming and fishing or simply being too close to the water. “What lives in the Gowanus is the most toxic bath of chemicals you can imagine,” said Dr. Robert Glatter of Lenox Hill Hospital.

What Now?

Finally, after years of protests and complaints, the Government declared the Gowanus Canal a “Superfund” site. A Superfund site is any land in the United States that has been polluted by hazardous waste and has drawn the attention of the Environmental Protection Agency. That makes it a candidate for cleanup because it poses a risk to human health and/or the environment (United States National Library of Medicine). According to a decision made by the Federal Government in 2010, the entire canal will be clean from coal tar by 2022. This decision was a huge step in the right direction.

Want to teach students about the Gowanus Canal through field studies and hands-on projects? See our STEM Gowanus Urban Ecology Curriculum for middle schools. 


The EPA hosted a Public Meeting Thursday night in Red Hook, facilitating an open forum to ask questions and state concerns for the Proposed Plan to clean up the Gowanus Canal. The Canal was declared a Superfund site in 2010, and has been contaminated for long over a century before then; needless to say, the Conservancy is itching to get this process started.

The Preferred Remedy will only be passed with Community Acceptance–thus the Conservancy urges everyone to look over the document. The public commenting period will last until March 28th, and can be addressed to:

Christos Tsiamis
Remedial Project Manager
Central New York Remediation Section
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
290 Broadway, 20th Floor
New York, New York 10007-1886

If you prefer, you can also email comments/questions to the Conservancy at We will be submitting our own formal comments and are interested in additional input from the Conservancy’s constituency.

During the Public Meeting, the EPA representatives distilled the roughly 40 page document into a short presentation outlining the 7 Remedial alternatives, which involve sediment dredging and capping. They additionally addressed source controls of discharges from Manufactured Gas Plants (MGPs), Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs), contaminated groundwater, and from unpermitted pipes.

The EPA highlighted human health risks associated with exposure to Canal waters, including touching or ingesting it (please DON’T do this). These include unacceptable risks to human health from being in contact with PAHs in sediments, ingesting fish and crabs that live in or have visited canals (PCBs), and spreading sediments from storm surges.

The presentation can be found on the EPA’s website here, and is chock-full of helpful visuals.

The Canal has been divided into 3 Remediation Target Areas (RTAs): the Upper, Middle, and Lower. Each of the areas will require different methods of remediation, as the extent of their contaminants varies.

Courtesy: EPA; Closer look at the map here.















Overall, 600,000 cubic yards of contaminated material will be removed, treated, and disposed. More details about disposal and treatment methods can be found on page 22 of the Proposed Plan.Here is a photo of National Grid taking sediment samples back in December 2012:












National Grid and the City of New York are two of the Potentially Responsible Parties (PRPs) among 20 others. Together, they foot most of the $500 million cleanup bill.

The Conservancy is hopeful for a thorough and sustainable remedy, especially in terms of CSO mitigation and removal. We look forward to input from the Conservancy constituency, and will continue to keep a close eye on the process.