State trying to backtrack on Gowanus cleanup: advocates

The Gowanus Canal.
Photo by Kevin Duggan

State conservation honchos want to lower New York’s water-quality standards — for the Gowanus Canal!

As if Brooklyn’s Nautical Purgatory didn’t have enough problems, officials at the state Department of Environmental Conservation want to reclassify the notoriously fetid waterway in a move that activists fear would strip the canal of much-needed resources.  

“We do see removing this language as backtracking on the designated use of these waterways,” said Erin Doran, an attorney for the water-quality activist group Riverkeeper.

Brooklyn’s putrid, man-made tributary is currently classified as a Class SD saline surface, which means the canal “shall be suitable for primary [swimming] and secondary [boating] contact recreation,” according to the state’s website.

But officials want to remove that line, which qualifies the waterway for state programs aimed at improving its water quality. 

The move comes as a local watchdog group seeks to reclassify the waterway in an effort to net additional resources for the canal, and one member said the state is essentially acting in direct opposition to the expressed interests of constituents. 

“The State’s proposed changes for language clarification… would be detrimental to the CAG’s request,” said Amy Motzny, a member of the Gowanus Canal Community Advisory Group, which oversees the ongoing federal Superfund cleanup of the waterway.

Gowanusaurs have been campaigning to divert more resources to making their neighborhood’s canal cleaner for marine life and humans since before Uncle Sam designated the waterway a Federal Superfund site in 2010.

And, gross though it may seem, daredevil Brooklynites are already playing in the canal, which is home to a local canoeing club and serves as the on-again, off-again swimming hole for environmental activist Christopher Swain, who swam the canal in an effort to raise awareness for the need to clean the fetid waterway. 

In 2018, officials at the EPA told the state agency’s head of its division of water, Mark Klotz, that they needed to introduce stricter bacteria standards in order to meet that goal.

The Department instead decided to lower its targets by filing their proposal to eliminate the language saying the waters shall be suitable for boating and swimming.

The Department filed for that change in October and will take comments from the public in writing until January 13, along with a public hearing at its regional office in Queens on January 8.

The agency ultimately decides whether to make the change, but their resolution could be challenged in court, Doran said.

“It’s up to DEC, but that’s not to say they’re not subject to judicial review,” she said.

A spokeswoman for the agency denied claims that the classification changes would deprive the Gowanus Canal of funding, adding that the state will continue to invest big bucks in Brooklyn’s Nautical Purgatory. 

“There is no backsliding by the state under this proposed clarification and through our ongoing and aggressive enforcement oversight, hundreds of millions of dollars is being spent on projects to improve the water quality in the Gowanus,” said Maureen Wren.