As the rain and wind got heavier on Monday, people stood at the end of Second Street along the Gowanus Canal and repeated catchphrases like “toxic soup,” “toxic cocktail” and even “The Bog of Eternal Stench” (a reference from the 1986 movie Labyrinth) as the body of green water rose just at street level.
The fear of a major flood through the Gowanus area—the west side of Third Avenue to Bond Street is a Zone A evacuation area along the length of the canal—carries more than just water going places it should not go. It also carries worry of toxic chemicals, the EPA found mercury, lead, copper and other known toxins in the canal, coming along for the ride through people’s homes and property.
“I think it’s a real mess because there are PCBs and other toxins down in the canal,” said Dutch Osborne, who lives in Park Slope and was walking along Third Street near the bridge on Monday. “If this thing floods, we’re going to have toxic soup floating all around.”
Osborne also said that if the canal floods and dishes out a toxic mix of PCBs and oil he thinks it could take a long time to clean up from people’s homes and streets.
Although the canal became a Superfund in March 2010 and more than from the Public Place site with 17 wells, the canal bed’s sediment is still filthy.
A couple standing on the Third Street Bridge—who were watching the green water rise and standing in the sideways rain— said that they are also expecting something “pretty gross” if the canal floods.
“It’s a scary thing to think about, all that toxic sludge, coming up over the banks and trash will be everywhere,” said Lillie Auld, who was standing with her boyfriend. “I hope clean-up is a priority. Will we be able to drink the water? Will the land be toxic?”
Standing in the gusts of wind, Auld concluded:
“The only thing we know is that it’ll be gross, but we’re New Yorkers so we can deal with a lot,” Auld said.
Residents along Bond Street were sweeping leaves and branches from the catch basins, to make sure the rainwater could go down the iron grates instead of flooding.
“It’s going to do what it’s going to do and Sandy is Mother Nature telling us she’s in charge,” Charlie Carames said, who was holding a broom and explained that he lives just outside the evacuation zone. “I’m worried about sewer backup.”
Carames explained that the sewer lines on Bond Street can backup if there is only one inch of rain on the street. Combined Sewer Overflows are a big concern in the cleanup of the canal too, some community members want a total elimination of New York City's CSOs into the polluted waterway.
“Once the sewers are full, the raw sewage only can go one way, that’s up the hill,” he said, explaining that the water may go up through people’s toilets and bathtubs.
But others were preparing for the water to come up from the canal, up the street and into their homes.
A man who lives in the first floor apartment on the corner of Bond and Second Street, was outside sandbagging his front door.
“They say to expect 10 feet surges, so I am thinking it’s going to flood about five feet throughout my apartment,” said Eddie Lopez, who explained he is evacuating his first-floor home. “I’m getting everything out of the house and putting it up in my neighbor’s on the second floor. I already evacuated my cats and I’m not staying for too much longer, I’m not staying for this.”
Another Zone A resident said she will not leave her home. She explained that she is on the second floor and feels safe. But, she’s expecting a big stench once the water settles.
“I am afraid it’s going to flood and we’ll have toxins all over the street,” said Victoria Bleakley from Carroll Street. “I just don’t want the electricity to go out and then we’ll have to leave and walk through all of the muck.”
While the Gowanus crept over the banks on Second Street before Hurricane Sandy made landfall, Bleakley said that Irene wasn’t much higher than the canal was on Monday afternoon. She is expecting some serious flooding, from what she refers to as “The Bog of the Eternal Stink."
Another couple hanging along the Union Street Bridge spoke about how a major flood might be bad for new development, especially the site of the forthcoming Lightstone Group’s 700-unit residential cluster of towers right over the bridge.
“Everyone says this area is ripe for development, but if the chemicals from the bottom of the canal come up with the flood and contaminate the area it might give Gowanus, as a new development site, a very different image,” said Michael Baltus while standing in the 30-mph winds on the bridge. “It may show us what we already know— that something truly awful is really down there.”
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