Public Lab Research note

Hudson Riverkeeper teaches how to report Gowanus pollution

by liz | March 06, 2014 15:58 06 Mar 15:58 | #10113 | #10113

folks: this note starts off bland but contains essential information about the regulatory and enforcement landscape of our beloved Gowanus Canal as well as tips for environmental "bounty hunters" who want $$$!

lead photo by Greg Thornberg

Gowanus Canal: watchdog basics for protecting your local waterway

By Phillip Musegaas cohosted by Gowanus Canal Conservancy.

Some background:

Riverkeeper has 6-7 years experience patrolling the Gowanus canal. We do:

  • pollution patrols
  • water quality sampling
  • carrying scientist to do research
  • educating policy people like Superfund administrators

RIverkeeper was established 1966 with mission of :

  • Protect and preserve the ecological integrity of the Hudson River
  • Protect the watershed that supplies drinking water for nearly 9M New Yorkers

Riverkeeper's "MO":

  • pollution enforcement -- bringing federal lawsuits against polluters through the Clean Water Act. If it takes gov enforcers more than 2 months to enforce (after we issue the Notice Letter), then we go to court. We rely on the boat and on watchdogs like yourself.
  • grassroots community engagement --
  • water quality sampling -- throughout the entire Hudson Valley estuary, 80 locations between NYC and Albany to look for sewage.
  • legislative and regulatory activity -- "Sewage Pollution Right To Know Law"! Still figuring out how to do the actual reporting.


2007 started water quality sampling 2009 proposed EPA Superfund designation. First round of enforcement, for example against a scrap metal operation that stacked up old buses etc so high that metal waste was dropping off their bulkhead into the canal. We sued them, and they went and dug it all out. 2010 March was designated superfund, RIverkeeper joined CAG 2012 - second Gowanus enforcement campaign focused on storm water pollution from industrial sites along the canal (scrap metal and concrete places that don't have any storm water permits at all)


  • EPA Superfund Remediation: supposed to get back to fishable and swimmable but that is rarely reached esp in urban sites.
  • USCoast Guard - major oil spill response (like if harbor navigation is blocked)
  • New York State DEC
    • CSO discharge
    • Clean Water Act Enforcement: also depends on classification of waterbody which is currently "SD" meaning O2 must be at 2 parts per 100 ml, which is "fish survival". Once the classification raises, the sewage discharge will have to be reduced. DEP "expects" our classification will be raised to "SI" through superfund. Can we get not only "fish survival" but also "fish able to reproduce"? Can we get human use? Documenting kayak and canoe use is critical because that use is in between boating and swimming.
    • Non-sewage discharges, stormwater permits, dumping, etc
    • small oil spill response
  • New York City DEP (the city owns its own sewage treatment plants and pipes)
    • CSO and Sewage Treatment Plant Discharges (and they are working towards NYC's Green Infrastructure plan and developing the Long Term Control Plan)
    • Un-permitted sewage discharges, hookups (for instance traced back to a marble cutting company a mile away from the canal that hooked their toilets in a trailer directly to the storm drain)


  • scrap metal recylcling facilities
  • concrete companies
  • NYC gov Facilities: sanitation, DOT, etc
  • CSO and other "outfalls"
  • Boat moorings and abandoned boats
  • historic industrial pollution - manufactured gas plants (MGP) sites -- This is the reason why we have superfund designation. brownfield sites of former refineries where coal was turned into a liquid fuel and many nasty byproducts like coal tar. just dumped into the soil. Over decades, plumes extended into groundwater, which extend under the bottom of the canal where the coal tar then bubbles up through sediments into the water column.


  • CSO untreated sewage
  • storm water runoff - oil, cement dust, chemicals
  • oil spills
  • coal tar
  • illegal dunmping - concrete, scrap metal, construction debris, packing materials
    • end of street dumping? if it's close enough to the edge so that it's obvious that it's making it's way into the waterway. Dumping claim on that - go through NYC's anti-dumping law for a "Clean Waterfront Plan". so go to Riverkeeper --> DEP or 311 --> DEP. $500 citizen reward for reporting dumping! If you happen to live on the end of the canal, set up a 24 hour camera to catch license plates, etc! Attorney General's office who had offices around the city will install cameras around the city (like under GWB where tires were being dumped)


  • liquid discharges from outfall pipes during dry weather (like 005 under Carroll street bridge which we reported last year as an illegal sewage hookup)
  • discolored water, powder on bulkheads. the white glassy sheen may be coal tar byproduct, or styrofoam that gets ground up into floating powder that gets coated in heating oil number 6. Coal tar is there all the time continuously bubbling in bottom sediments which makes more surface sheen in the hot months (high heat + low oxygen due to sewage overflow = more coal tar coming up) and more so in low tide.
  • white opacity after rain: is this scoured out emulsified fat. NO it's a "whiting event" bacteria feeding on excess nutrients (sewage)
  • oil sheens on the water, bulkhead, or shorelines. The rainbow sheens are a sign of freshness as in recent spill or recently exposed to air. if you see this it's a good idea to call the hotline, so the state can send in their standing staff to arrive within an hour or two: 1-800-457-7362. if it's flat or grey, then you are probably looking at weathered oil that has come out from a CSO or was stirred up from the sediment by a storm of something.
  • floating debris
  • suspicious activity


  • Date/Time of Day / weather conditions
  • location
  • details: sight/smell/frequency (is there a pattern of seeing this same problem)
  • documentation:
    • photos video with event and location (like street signs)
    • narrative report:
    • contact info
    • note who else you have reported this to


  • DEC Spills hotline: 1-800-457-7362
  • Riverkeeper: 1-800-21-RIVER, ext 231
  • NYC DEP via 311: it leads to an Environmental Hearing Board. There's an administrative body for NYC that handles quality of life violating. if you get that far to a citizen-brought lawsuit, the court will pay you $250. adding it to 311 is the only way to create a mappable complaint that many city observers look at to see cumulative patterns.
  • online:
  • email:

WHO HAS TO CLEAN IT UP, AND HOW FAST? depends on how quick the response is and we can get the original company to go out and clean up. Otherwise will go unresolved. Usually, the work will be done over longer term to do modifications to their property so that it doesn't happen again. if an oil spill gets called in within a couple hours, the oil spill response team will go out and clean it up. unless it's right after Sandy! On other types of pollution, it is hard to say what the cleanup response time will be. DEP can be surprisingly fast - we called them from the boat last year, sent email report later in the day, and they had inspectors out that night or the next morning. A bulkhead can get fixed in 2 or 3 months. In a fast lawsuit, start to finish could be as short as 8 months.


  • you may have seen drill rigs boring into sidewalks all around Gowanus studying permeability of soil for bioswale suitability
  • Superfund plan mandates reduction of sewage by 2/3rds via 2 large tanks.
  • [FACT CHECK THIS] 1.5% of storm water needs to be handled in green infrastructure in next 2 years, 10% in 20 years.
  • DEP offers 6M grant fund for private individuals who want to install their own green infrastructure
  • general promotion of GI on private property. not a really good incentive system. many people trying to push the system towards this.
  • Superfund has released "Recommendation of Renewal" plan [NAME?]. Dredging is starting right away with DEP getting the Flushing Tunnel working. Feds will come in 2 years and start from head of canal and dredge 3 different sections working north to south over 6 years.
  • Eymund's point: Can waterfront lots just have direct discharge for their roof drains? Legally they can plug into the sewage system, but that makes sewage overflow instead of mere roof water for which they need a complicated state SPEDES permit. Example: dillingberger property.
  • you can petition the state to raise the classification level, see above.


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