Memories of An Aquatic Casualty: Pols Ask City to Halt Gowanus Canal Development Plans


A seven-foot dolphin appeared at the head of the Gowanus Canal earlier this year, ailing and struggling to work its way out of the abysmally polluted waters, as crowds of onlookers rallied for the survival of the dying (spoiler alert) marine mammal.

And so it’s without wonderment that some local residents are worried that the excavation of large development sites proposed along the canal could push that same putrid, contaminated water even further inland in the presence of floodwater conditions that occur with some regularity along the canal, prompting several local politicians to send a letter last week to Deputy Mayors Cas Holloway and Robert Steele.

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The iconic picture of the Gowanus dolphin (Credit: Richard Drew, AP)
The iconic picture of the Gowanus dolphin (Credit: Richard Drew, AP)

In it, the politicians – Councilman Brad Lander, Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez and State Senator Velmanette Montgomery – call for a new study that would investigate the adverse impacts of building new developments on the banks of the filthy canal prior to the city’s issuing of any building permits.

Specifically, they refer to Lightstone Group’s plan to build a 700-unit rental development along the canal, which was approved by the City Planning Commission in March.

Lightstone plans to “re-grade” its building site by raising the site of the development by two feet to comply with FEMA’s post-Sandy Advisory Base Flood Elevations and accompanying changes to the city’s Building Code.  But that could create more flooding for neighbors, the letter argues.

“Constituents who live and work near the Gowanus Canal have expressed concern, which we share, about the potentially adverse impact that large-scale, but piecemeal, re-grading of development sites could have on surrounding properties during flooding episodes,” the letter states.

“We would like to understand if your offices have investigated the potential for adverse hydrologic impacts upon surrounding properties.”

Last year, the monstrosity known as Hurricane Sandy caused the canal to overflow, flooding surrounding businesses and homes, and the letter was sent on the same day that heavy rains caused flash flooding in the Gowanus area.

The politicians argue that the ground elevation proposed by Lightstone Group could “well affect the pattern of water displacement during a flooding event.”

“It would be better to bring all stakeholders to the table to develop a comprehensive plan for the infrastructure, flood protection, and land use regulations needed for a safe, vibrant, and sustainable canal area,” the letter states.

As for that dolphin: Until a necropsy revealed that the dolphin had died from causes unrelated to years of industrial dumping that turned the canal into an inhospitable mess, the idea persisted that the dolphin had perhaps been sickened by the canal’s lurid water.

In fact, the state of the water was among the many factors that led rescuers to wait for high tide rather than attempt to save the animal.

“Unfortunately, all we can do is watch and wait for the tide to rise, so the animal can get out on its own. It’s not safe for us to get people in the water,” Robert DiGiovanni, director and senior biologist with the Riverhead Foundation, the group leading the “rescue” efforts, told the New York Daily News at the time.

As a result of years of discharges, storm water runoff, sewer outflows and industrial pollutants, the Gowanus Canal, crowned a Superfund site in 2010, is one of the nation’s most extensively contaminated water bodies, with contaminants including PCBs, pesticides, coal tar wastes, heavy metals and “volatile organics,” according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

The heartbreak of the dolphin’s demise enraged others nonetheless.  The New York Post even claimed the dolphin was “killed by government incompetence.”

Calls and emails directed at the deputy mayors regarding the letter were not returned by press time.  An update will follow upon their response.