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Ughh !!! A Dirty River Still Flows In Brooklyn - Story Of The Gowanus Canal


by Leslie Gabriel May 27, 2016

Ughh !!! Don't drink from it !!!

Running through the heart of Brooklyn, the Gowanus Canal is very small relative to other bodies of water at just 1.8 miles long and 100 feet wide. Yet in terms of both how polluted it is, and the density of surrounding population, it has an enormous impact. It moves through the neighborhoods of Gowanus, Red Hook and Carroll Gardens. And while the canal once moved through areas of heavy industry and was even an alleged mafia dumping ground, today along its banks, a Whole Foods has sprung up, people sip $12 cocktails, and much of the surrounding industry is conducted by freelancers on macbooks at co-working spaces. But the canal remains dirty, perfuming the neighborhood with its particular small as it parades by with its rainbow of oil slicked colors, combined with curious hues of greens and blacks.

A History of the Gowanus Canal

As short as the canal is, it’s history is long. Fed by the New York Upper Harbor (the section of the Hudson River just south of the southern tip of Manhattan, widens and forms an estuary before flowing into the Atlantic Ocean), it was originally a tidal inlet of multiple navigable streams named the Gowanus Creek. It’s said that Henry Hudson sailed into the original Gowanus Creek during his exploration of the river that is now named for him. In the mid-1800s the route the Gowanus took proved an important one for industry, and the Creek was widened to become the canal it is today, while multiple smaller ponds of the tidal inlet were filled in to make way for industrialization and residents.

The canal served to transport goods and supplies to and from manufactured gas plants, paper mills, tanneries and chemical plants, all of which discharged waste directly into the canal. Additionally, years of heavy industrial boat traffic, topped off by regular sewage overflow into the canal have led to one of the dirtiest bodies of water imaginable.

Black Mayonnaise and Guns

One would imagine that in densely populated residential neighborhoods, such extensive pollution of this sort, pollution that is not invisible, but rather has a tangible visual and olfactory presence, would be considered unacceptable. Referring to a former major munitions factory, in his novel Motherless Brooklyn, one of Jonathan Lethem’s character refers to the canal as "the only body of water in the world that is 90 per cent guns.” No longer used as a major source for industrial transportation, and unsure how to deal with the level of pollution, the city has not dredged the canal in years. In addition to all its other problems, this has led to the bottom of the canal being covered with 10 feet of sediment. Not just any sediment, but a special mix of all of the industrial sludge, waste and sewage that has been named black mayonnaise.

In addition to the obvious environmental consequences of this pollution, there are also numerous very real health hazards that come with living near such dirty water. Of the contaminants that are known to exist in the canal, carcinogenic heavy metals make the list, with the level of arsenic listed at 60 times the level of exposure considered safe. Although small, those 1.8 miles by 100 ft. still makes up a significant size of water that is primarily stagnant. This has led to all sorts of microenvironments consisting of disease, bacteria, microbes and additional forms of pollution that are neither fully mapped out, studied or understood.

Is there hope for the Gowanus Canal ???

In 2010 the Gowanus Canal was finally declared a Superfund Site, meaning that the EPA has pledged to devote federal resources to get it clean. This was a large ray of hope in what had amounted to over a century’s attempts of failed cleanups.

Past Superfund projects have seen enormous results. The good news is that naming the Gowanus a Superfund Site, combined with a major revitalization of the surrounding neighborhoods have shone a spotlight on this canal, causing a spate of press and attention. The bad news is that the EPA and other cleanup organizers have had to contend with the realization that they did not fully appreciate how very polluted the canal was, and how complicated the cleanup would be. In addition, the fact that the neighborhoods have become so much more desirable, despite the still dirty canal, has meant that real estate prices have skyrocketed. In order to complete this complex project and get the canal clean, the cleanup crews must have extensive access to all of the canal. A major challenge exists in how to be allowed this access, and even if the government takes surrounding property by eminent domain, this still creates a price tag that is staggering, even from the big spending perspective of past superfund sites.

Is there any chance it can be done? Well, the fact remains that much larger sites have seen drastic improvements as a result of being declared a Superfund Site. The Charles River which covers much more ground saw an amazing transformation with EPA help, but without the full support a Superfund Site receives. It’s possible that the Gowanus, on a sq. ft. to sq. ft. comparison is dirtier than any other Superfund Site that’s been attempted before. There’s just not enough information to know exactly how dirty it is. But let’s all hope that the challenge of getting it clean is one that can be achieved by the EPA working together with city of New York and the residents of Brooklyn.




Leslie Gabriel
Leslie Gabriel

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