I recently took a trip to the Gowanus neighborhood in Brooklyn to visit its infamously polluted (and smelly) canal. After decades of controversy, the Environmental Protection Agency recently named the canal as a Superfund site—one of the few such designations in an inner-urban area. In its report, the EPA found that the Gowanus Canal “has become one of the nation’s most extensively contaminated water bodies,” with contaminants including “PCBs, coal tar wastes, heavy metals and volatile organics.”
In theory the designation means that those industries and groups responsible for polluting the waterway—including most prominently the U.S. Navy, the City of New York, Con-Edison and National Grid—will be forced to help pay for an estimated $300 to $500 million cleanup. New York City had fought the designation, arguing that stigma of Superfund would tarnish the reputation of the neighborhood, making redevelopment more difficult. The City also said it had a more efficient plan.
Now, though, everyone is pledging to work together on the cleanup.
Built in the 1860s by expanding a local creek, the Gowanus Canal quickly became a major industrial hub for Brooklyn and New York and was the home to numerous oil refineries and chemical plants as well as the repository for countless combined sewer overflows in rainstorms. As early as 1893 The Brooklyn Eagle called the canal “an open cesspool,” so one can only imagine what it was like a hundred years later.
A flushing tunnel was installed in 1911, but was closed in the 1960s after the flushing propeller was damaged. The canal lay stagnant for nearly three decades before it was finally fixed.
So what is the waterway like? It’s hard to do justice in pictures. When I was there, I didn’t notice a particularly noxious smell, but there was an oily film on the surface of the water in addition to the random bits of rubbish—I can say for certain it didn’t look like a great place for a swim. It’s said that before the resumption of flushing in 1999, the canal was so polluted that there was no life at all under the water.
Now that a real cleanup finally seems to be underway, however, it’s interesting to note what’s going on in the rest of the neighborhood, which has become one of those fascinating, dynamic New York places where housing projects sit next to yoga studios and art galleries. Could the waterway be transformed from filthy, polluted eyesore to a major magnet for urban revitalization?
It may be too early to tell, but if it does, the Gowanus Canal and neighborhood could become an important testament to our ability to both reinvent ourselves and regenerate the natural world we have so carelessly damaged.
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