On March 15, 2023, Mayor Eric Adams, New York City Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Rohit T. Aggarwala and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 2 Administrator Lisa F. Garcia celebrated the groundbreaking for the first of two underground storage tanks that will protect the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn. The two tanks will collect sewer overflow during storms and prevent that overflow from entering the Gowanus Canal. The project will also include the creation of 3.6 acres of new public waterfront space.
The Gowanus Canal was converted from a tidal creek to a 100-foot wide, 1.8 mile long canal for industrial uses in the 1860s. Heavy polluters like chemical plants and oil refineries operated next to the canal and used it to discharge their waste. Sewer overflow from storms only contributes further to the historic pollution in the canal. In 2010, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency identified the Gowanus Canal as a Superfund site, which enables the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up a contaminated site.
This project is made possible because of the Superfund designation. The two tanks will have a combined capacity to collect 12 million gallons of water, which will further help keep the canal clean. The overflow water is held in the tanks until the storm passes, and then the overflow waste water is pumped back into the sewer system and sent to a wastewater resource recovery facility to be treated. Overall, the city has approximately 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater daily, and during wet weather the system can handle over double that volume, but once those systems reach capacity the excess water is discharged into local waterways to avoid backup into local homes and businesses. While those buildings are protected, the wastewater then pollutes local waterways.
The first tank will be located at the north end of the canal, bounded by Nevins Street, Butler Street and Degraw Street. Previously, the city has cleared the site, including deconstructing and salvaging brick and other stone elements from 1913 Gowanus Station building, which will be reconstructed as part of the overall project. The groundbreaking marked the start of the excavation and construction of the tank. This tank will hold up to eight million gallons of sewage during storms. The project also includes a headhouse building for the mechanical and electrical systems for the tank, screens to remove debris from the overflow water, and odor control equipment.
In addition, 1.6 acres of public waterfront open space will be constructed on top of the tank. This public space will include a waterfront esplanade with reclaimed concrete block benches, planted areas, lawns with seatwells and benches, granite pavers, and weathered steel accents. Plantings will also manage stormwater runoff and serve to help cool the space.
The city is set to begin site preparation for the second tank before this June. The second tank will hold four million gallons of overflow water. The second tank will be located at the bend of the canal at a triangular peninsula at Second Avenue and Sixth Street. The second tank project will also include a headhouse and two acres of public waterfront space built on top of the tank. The open space wraps 1,770 feet along the site. It will include a 3,000 square foot tidal wetland, water access at Second Avenue, and the city’s first public ADA-accessible kayak launch at Sixth Street. There are spaces for community gathering, amphitheater seating, lawn space, and an outdoor classroom. The site will remain home to the Sanitation Department’s salt and plow storage and composting operations, and the Gowanus Canal Conservancy. The project will provide new facilities to help improve and support those functions.
As part of further remediation efforts in this project, the Environmental Protection Agency is dredging over 580,000 cubic yards of polluted sediment from the bottom of the canal to stop further contamination.
The overall project is expected to cost $1.6 billion, with $329 million being used for the construction of the first tank.
Mayor Adams stated, “Today’s groundbreaking will protect the Gowanus Canal from pollution and deliver acres of new public spaces and waterfront access to New Yorkers. This project is a powerful statement about our city’s adaptability and determination, and we’re not stopping here in Gowanus. We want to make sure that every waterway in New York City is clean enough for the dolphins we saw in the Bronx River to swim in, and whenever we have opportunities to bring new public open spaces to communities that are crying out for them, we’re going to seize those chances.”
EPA Regional Administrator Garcia stated, “Today marks the achievement of an important milestone in our shared efforts to restore and protect the health of the Gowanus Canal. Under the leadership of Mayor Adams and New York City DEP Commissioner Aggarwala, the city has taken an important step forward in implementing the EPA-ordered Superfund cleanup and safeguarding the health of our environment and the well-being of this community.”
New York City Comptroller Brad Lander stated, “These infrastructure investments into improving the Gowanus waterfront and sewer system will allow residents now and in the future to have a cleaner, more resilient neighborhood. Breaking ground on the sewage overflow tanks is a major and long-awaited step in the process of confronting the health and environmental impacts of pollution in the Gowanus Canal, so that residents can safely enjoy the waterfront in the years to come.”
By: Veronica Rose (Veronica is the CityLaw fellow and a New York Law School graduate, Class of 2018.)