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The Beautiful Sludge, or How Superfund-y Muck Becomes Lovely Glass Cubes

I am not made of stone. If you cut me, I bleed. If you start talking about insulation or New Domino, I get really excited. I am human, in short, which means that while I want gbNYC to be a serious venue for serious discussion about green building, I’m also susceptible to far-fetched green building things that just kind of seem cool. Even, and perhaps especially, if they’re not notably feasible. And so here comes a contradiction: while I still feel like green building writ large needs to be clear about what it is (its brand, if you’re into that sort of language) and work on making sure that more people know just how well it works rather than emphasizing its less-practical bleeding edge, I am also now going to write about some totally far-fetched, goofy/luxurious green practice that will almost certainly never become a mainstream thing. And I am going to write about with a clean conscience, because honestly the fact that the luminously toxic sludge from the bottom of the Gowanus Canal could be turned into striking/freaking glass cubes for use in art and design… that is frankly cool enough to occasion a one-day break from my usual Serious-Face Writing.

So, some context you may not need: the Gowanus is NYC’s newest and most utterly predictable Superfund site, winning (?) the designation back in March over the equally predictable protests of real estate developers, the big-name polluters who would be forced to pay for the cleanup, and a small, orange Mayor who unfailing supports both. The Superfund designation was pretty obviously the right thing to do — look at that picture again, if you’d like, or just get a long whiff of the place on a warm day — and while it tripped up the Toll Brothers’ hilariously ill-conceived esplanade-enhanced canal-side development, it hasn’t stopped other worthy green projects in the neighborhood from going forward. There’s a decade of intense de-scuzzification ahead on the canal, including what is almost certainly a painstaking dredging of the waterway’s epically sludgy bottom. Again, all totally justifiable.

But what to do with all that sludge? The short answer, and the one that’s likeliest to happen, would be “move those foul-smelling 300,000 cubic yards of gunk to a landfill far, far away.” It’s an uncool thing to do in a handful of really obvious ways — putting that stuff in South Carolina won’t make it any less toxic — but it’s cheap and it’s what generally happens. But, and I’m going to write a post tomorrow ripping myself for the next clause in this sentence, wouldn’t it be cool if there were a way to superheat that Superfund-y sludge to like 2000 degrees Fahrenheit in metal molds, thus creating glass cubes the size of a washing machine that are suitable for use in art, architecture, or whatever it is that one uses giant glass cubes for? It would be cool, is the answer. Vitrification, which is the name given to that process, is very cool.

“There is one drawback to the process of vitrification,” Greenopolis’ Trish Smith writes. “It costs a pretty penny to turn sludge into glass, so the E.P.A. is conducting studies at various nuclear waste sites in the U.S. to see if it’s a good idea. If it deems too expensive, some other options for cleaning the Gowanus Canal are to ship the sludge to a landfill or to lay clay over the canal to encase the contaminants.” Which, you know, of course — of course it costs a lot of money to heat anything to 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. But, as Susan Cosier reports in Popular Mechanics, this isn’t as speculative as it sounds. In fact, vitrification is already being used to treat nuclear waste, and has already been used successfully on other nearby Superfund sites. The sidewalks at Montclair University, for instance, are made of a concrete mixture enhanced with formerly contaminated sediments from Passaic River sludge excavated from the Diamond Alkali superfund site.

“Sometimes even seemingly elegant solutions die on a study’s spreadsheets,” Cosier writes. “Yet as environmental regulations become more stringent, and landfill space decreases, vitrification may turn out to be a more desirable alternative to remediating Superfund sites in the future.  Officials should know by the end of next year, after they finish their study of how to deal with the material, if they can make a thing of beauty from the Gowanus Canal’s beastly gunk.” We’ll keep an eye on it, of course, once we get back to our usual Very Serious subject matter. Even hardcore green building types need a hit of the cool stuff every now and then.

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One Response to The Beautiful Sludge, or How Superfund-y Muck Becomes Lovely Glass Cubes

  1. Trish Smith November 11, 2010 at 3:24 pm #

    Hi David! Thanks for referencing me in the article :) You have a great website!

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