Video: An immersion course in the Gowanus Canal

The Gowanus Canal. ()
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The Gowanus Canal does not breed much in the way of hope. A stew of ever-increasing piles of waste—human, industrial, and who knows what other sorts—remains and has grown since the last partial dredging by the United States Army Corps of Engineering in 1975, leaving the toxic waterway breeding not much of anything, other than that smell. So when, on March 2 of this year, the Environmental Protection Agency finally added the canal to its Superfund list—setting it up for its first-ever comprehensive cleaning—there was finally some reason for optimism on the banks of what some locals have nicknamed the Lavender Lake.

But now, some of the E.P.A.'s early findings suggest the impossible: the Gowanus Canal, a poster-child for urban environmental ruin, is even worse than we thought.

“In plain English, it’s quite scary,” said Carl Hum, president and C.E.O. of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce. “As a layperson, it was quite shocking.”

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When the site was nominated for federal Superfund status in April 2009, the E.P.A. started collecting data, reviewing and analyzing numerous (but scattered and limited) studies conducted over the past decade. This January, the agency began original studies—a bathymetric study, then a sediment sampling two months later, and recent work on test wells for groundwater along the banks. In March, when the Gowanus was officially designated a Superfund site, the E.P.A. began releasing the first truly comprehensive analyses of the Gowanus to the public. Those accounts read like a pharmaceutical supply catalog: polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls, cadmium, naphthalene, dibenzofuran, bendo(a)pyrene, acetone, ethylbenzene, mercury, and arsenic, to name just a few of dozens.

The canal is also brimming with heavy metals, volatiles, and other organic compounds. According to E.P.A. officials, many areas suffer from contamination measurable in parts per million to parts per hundred. Usually it’s a matter for concern when a waterway reaches a toxicity level measurable in parts per billion. In some places in the canal contaminants compose up to 4.5 percent of the total mass of sediments.

It's no secret that the city's industrial past polluted many of its waterways, but the Gowanus is also plagued by the present. To this day, raw sewage spews into the canal from, by some estimates, more than 200 pipes of unknown origin. The Army Corps of Engineers estimated such pipes dumped approximately 292.8 million gallons of sewage in 2005, feeding the canal a robust diet of household toxins, as well as live pathogens, including aggressive, disease-causing bacteria associated with the human digestive tract. And, as New York City College of Technology Professors Nasreen and Niloufar Haque have discovered, the canal has even contracted a case of gonorrhea. That is to say, they have discovered live cultures of the (more often) sexually transmitted bacterium free-floating in sample drops of water—not too surprising when considering that typhus, typhoid and cholera cropped up in studies of the Gowanus in the 1970s. Even worse, the Haque sisters have also identified a new strain of carcinogen- and bacteria-resistant micro-organism evolving on the floor of the canal.

While locals may be surprised by the presence of these (and many, many other) contaminants, E.P.A. officials say what's in the Gowanus is not what caught the agency off-guard. “There’s currently no cutoff wall between the source areas [of chemical runoff on the shores or at sewer pipes] and the canal,” says E.P.A. community involvement coordinator Natalie Loney. “So it’s not surprising if there was a large increase in contaminants over the last decade.”

What is remarkable, officials say, is the rate at which it happened.

Over just seven years, according to E.P.A. testing, the upper canal has accumulated up to three feet of new sludge. The E.P.A. suspects they will have to remove much of this, but at massive expense—a quarter to half a billion dollars—when it's not clear whether or not the muck will just pile up again over the course of the next decade.

This is not the first time the Gowanus Canal has been host to ambitious projects and passionate environmental initiatives. As early as 1889, just over 20 years after the official canal opening, and with just four sewers dumping into it, a mayoral commission proposed stemming toxic degradation, defending the costs by asserting that “the condition in which [the canal] is allowed to exist is simply a disgrace to the city of Brooklyn.” Those proposals failed, as did many thereafter.

Even the more successful projects have achieved only partial—and usually dismal—victories. One of the most famous among them is the 1911 construction of Flushing Tunnel, built to pump clean water from the Buttermilk Channel (a short waterway between Brooklyn and Governor's Island, and also the name of a restaurant in Carroll Gardens) into the Gowanus and push the fetid soup out to sea. But the tunnel has never operated properly. Even after a spirited renovation in 1999, a city report revealed that the pump, intended to provide 300 million gallons per day of fresh water, provided on average only 154 million. Having done little to improve water quality, save at the mouth of the pump, the tunnel is already slated for yet another round of renovations, which the city suspects will increase the force of the pump by only about 60 million gallons per day.

The mostly industrial and sparsely populated area around the Gowanus has never been a political priority, according to Hum, in part because “there’s never been a moment when the city could throw money around.”

“The will [for a cleanup] was always there,” said Katia Kelly, a Brooklyn blogger who has tracked the progress of the Gowanus efforts, “but there aren’t so many people living right on the shores of the canal. It was a lost land—really, as a community, we thought we had lost.”