The big sink: Whole Foods’s esplanade along Gowanus Canal puckers due to waterway’s cleanup

The big sink: Whole Foods’s esplanade along Gowanus Canal puckers due to waterway’s cleanup
Photo by Jason Speakman

The Gowanus Canal is swallowing this food whole!

The ground beneath a seating area outside Gowanus’s Whole Foods started sinking towards the toxic waterway it abuts after equipment workers used in the Superfund site’s scrub shook the land around the store, forcing employees to rope the space off indefinitely, according to the Feds leading the canal’s cleanse.

“As we were experimenting, a couple things happened, and some of the soft material that you see here settled,” Environmental Protection Agency Regional Administrator Pete Lopez said outside the Third Street grocer on Monday. “I wouldn’t say it’s dangerous, but I don’t want people walking there.”

The dirt underneath the tables and chairs on the brick promenade along the canal’s Fourth Street Turning Basin shifted amid a pilot dredging-and-capping program in the basin, which stalled last year after workers realized the massive machines they used to install new bulkheads along that section of the channel too powerfully struck its banks, creating fissures in nearby buildings and land — including that beneath the al fresco hangout.

But those vibrations did not affect the Whole Foods building itself, which Lopez assured is safe from collapse.

“The main structure, as we understand it, is solid,” he said. “We will keep a close eye on it because of course we don’t want anyone to be hurt, or any damage.”

The polluters who contaminated Brooklyn’s Nautical Purgatory and are required to foot the bill for its cleanup, including utility company National Grid, will now also be charged with the cost to repair the grocer’s waterfront esplanade, according to Lopez, who said the Amazon-owned supermarket won’t have to spend a dime to fix the pedestrian space it paid to create.

“We don’t expect Whole Foods to pay. I think they like us, we promised to fix their property,” he said.

But the grocery store’s patrons won’t be able to munch on its produce along the putrid canal until the slow-going pilot program wraps, because Lopez’s colleague said the Feds must finish that work before turning their attention to the plummeting promenade, where Whole Foods staff posted signs advising “caution, watch your step” and that it will be “closed until further notice due to ongoing cleanup efforts” in the meantime.

“The next step is to finish off this pilot project, and when the work is done this is all going to get repaired,” said Environmental Protection Agency bigwig Walter Mugdan.

And although the initial dredging-and-capping program is progressing, Lopez said it’s still moving slower than expected, and likely won’t end until the fall at the earliest — roughly six months later than planned.

“We think it will continue into the fall. We’re going to be here for some time doing the project,” he said.

But the officials — who gathered near the Fourth Street Turning Basin on Monday to celebrate the one-year anniversary of a task force set up to streamline the federal agency’s Superfund program by its now-disgraced former head Scott Pruitt — said their old boss’s departure won’t muck up the canal’s already in-motion cleanse.

“We’re full steam ahead,” said Lopez.

Still, another Environmental Protection Agency staffer would not even attempt to guess when the entire purge will wrap — noting that years of work remain despite the 2022 end date officials first gave the project — or how much its current $506-million price tag may balloon due to hiccups, such as the sinking esplanade, that arise along the way.

“It’s going to be a number of years before we’re actually back here and doing dredging, and then there are three to four years’ worth of field work for us to actually implement it,” said John Prince. “It’s going to take longer than we could estimate a few years ago. That’s as close as we’re going to get.”

Reach reporter Julianne Cuba at (718) 260–4577 or by e-mail at jcuba@cnglocal.com. Follow her on Twitter @julcuba.
Black mayonnaise: The Environmental Protection Agency’s slow-going, pilot dredging-and-capping program inside the canal’s Fourth Street Turning Basin, which the Whole Foods esplanade lines, caused the dirt beneath the seating area to shift.
Photo by Jason Speakman