State of the Planet

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DIY Superfund Cleanup? Jerko the Water Vacuum Goes to Gowanus

Last Saturday, October 2nd saw the maiden voyage of “Jerko, the Gowanus Water Vacuum” in a classic expression of the burgeoning, grandly ambitious Do-it-Yourself environmental cleanup movement. The voyage was part of the recent Gowanus DIY Green Block party, sponsored by GreenHome NYC.

Jerko the Gowanus Water Vacuum. Source: Green Home NYC.

Jerko is a refurbished houseboat, renovated with salvaged materials and fitted with a floating wetland. The boat lives on the infamously polluted but much beloved Gowanus Canal (otherwise known as “the loveliest toxic waterway” in New York, according to Jennifer Prediger, an environmental video producer).

Jerko is intended to move up and down the canal, cleaning water through biological filtration and reminding us of what have done to the earth—and what, in theory, we can aspire to do.

A few months ago the Gowanus Canal made headlines for finally being named as a federal Superfund site—some 150 years after it first gained notoriety as a stinky, toxic, sewer-filled waterway in the heart of Brooklyn. (The Water Center’s Julia Hitz recently reported on Newtown Creek, another New York waterway that now has Superfund status).

According to the EPA, the Gowanus Canal was “the repository of untreated industrial wastes, raw sewage, and surface water runoff for decades, causing it to become one of New York’s most polluted waterways” and that

“Numerous sampling events have shown the sediments in the Gowanus Canal to be contaminated with a variety of pollutants, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), volatile organic contaminants (VOCs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), pesticides, and metals. PAH concentrations were found to be as high as 45,000 milligrams per kilogram (4.5%) and the contamination was found to traverse the entire length of the canal. Many of the detected contaminants are known carcinogens.”

Or, more tersely, “The Canal has been heavily contaminated throughout its existence. No environmental remediation has been undertaken to date.”

It’s important to note that while most  industrial activity has left the area, pollution of the canal is ongoing, in particular from combined sewer overflow events. (To get out an idea of what that means, check out this rather disgusting video of the canal during a storm, taken only a few weeks ago):

Superfund designation is important. Passed in 1980, the Superfund law allows the Environmental Protection Agency to compel those who have polluted our land and water to pay for its cleanup.

At the same time, many in the Gowanus community have expressed frustration that the long-awaited cleanup is now subject to yet more bureaucratic delays. The EPA’s plan calls for sampling and study through 2011, with no projected start to cleanup until 2012 at least.

Enter the DIY remediation movement. Inspired by the work of bioremediation pioneer John Todd, the Jerko Water Vacuum project intends to show how water can be cleaned through relatively inexpensive but surprisingly effective techniques of biological filtration through artificial wetlands. More importantly, it shows how citizens can take the health of their environment into their own hands without waiting for large-scale institutional action.

As a model, the Water Vacuum looked at Todd’s work with the Baima waterway in Fuzhou, China—a 600 meter long canal that is the recipient of some 750,000 gallons of untreated sewage daily from a city of 6 million people. Rather than re-pump the sewage to a far off treatment plant, the city engaged Todd’s firm to design what he calls a “Restorer” – a floating island walkway composed of 12,000 plants and 20 native species along with a mechanical aeration and bacterial inoculation system. According to Todd’s firm, the system reduced odors, increased water clarity and met several secondary effluent standards.

The Baima Canal before cleanup. Source: John Todd Ecological Design

But while it can be much less expensive than conventional remediation technology, Todd’s work is not exactly what one would call low budget or Do-it-Yourself. The Gowanus water vacuum, on the other hand, can’t possibly clean the entire canal itself, no matter how well designed.

All of which begs the question: what exactly is the appropriate role of volunteer, “low-tech,” DIY approaches to environmental cleanup in the context of really big contamination problems?

In that context, the Green Block party had a number of other “DIY” events, including seminars on New York City storm water systems and a how-to green roofing class.

This last event is particularly interesting in light of Mayor Bloomberg’s recent “Green Infrastructure” push as part of the Plan NYC sustainability program.

Baima after cleanup. Source: John Todd Ecological Design.

Green Infrastructure usually refers to small-scale distributed infrastructure that works with, rather than against, the natural water cycles. Typical examples include green roofs, swales, rain gardens and pervious pavement. Green infrastructure is usually contrasted with so-called “gray infrastructure” which consists of things like tanks and sewers designed to divert “waste” water away from human settlements as quickly as possible. Needless to say, the gray approach is fraught with problems.

Bloomberg’s plan calls for “outreach and education” and the EPA website itself has an extensive (and very useful) fact-sheet on green infrastructure.

Maybe the question, then, isn’t whether the DIY approach is better than the long study, big-project approach of the EPA, but whether large institutions can work with Do-it-Yourselfers and other local activists to design the most flexible, cost-efficient and effective solutions to lighten the burden of the tragic damage we have inflicted and are continuing to inflict on water and soil around us.

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13 years ago

This is so cool! It’s very inspiring to see such motivated people taking action. I hope they don’t get sick spending so much time on that contaminated water way.

13 years ago

That video of the Gowanus canal experiencing a “sewer overflow event” is shocking. It’s amazing that, given our society’s relative technological advancement and wealth, in the end all our trash just ends up in our water. We should treat our waterways with the utmost of respect. Without clean water our planet won’t be able to support life at all.

13 years ago

wow. that is amazingly cool. I wish there was something like that on the rivers where i live….

perhaps, there is.. i’ll have to look into it more.

thanks. 🙂