Gowanus Canal. [CREDIT: KRISTIN PHILLIPS]
Biologist Kathleen Nolan steps off the makeshift pier – a patchwork of concrete slabs, wooden and plastic decking, and bare earth – and balances between rubble and the still waters of the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn. Leaning over the bulkhead, she fills a container with chilly water. She is sampling the water as she has before, bringing her students from nearby St. Francis College.
Here, where Second Street ends at the canal, there are few signs of life. A lone crocus struggles from the rocky soil of a small garden. Nearby there’s a grey disposable diaper, a handful of nutrient-starved saplings, and a sodden, bunched-up shirt tossed among locked and stacked canoes. Trucks clatter across the planks of a moribund bridge; a cement factory roars.
Then Nolan notices something partially submerged in the water. She bounds over, pulling aside and ducking through a razor wire fence. She hauls out a black and white cage. “It’s little oyster shells,” she says, smiling. Oysters filter water for nutrients and remove pollutants. “I wonder if someone is trying to do something.” Nolan carefully returns the cage to the water and sits down on the remains of a brick chimney, dousing her hands with Lysol and searching for gloves in several pockets. “I have sixteen different kinds of mittens. I don’t think any of them match,” she says ruefully.
Someone is trying to do something. Generations of Brooklynites know the Gowanus Canal as one of the most polluted bodies of water in New York. More than a century of industrial misuse, indifferent government oversight, and public apathy have taken their toll. In addition to the garbage and chemical contamination, the canal is a dumping ground for raw sewage. At least 50 times a year, New York City’s sewage system channels wastewater and storm overflow into the canal.
But now the Gowanus Canal has been flushed with fresh water for almost eight years, easing the legendary stench and allowing jellyfish and crabs to share the water with floating dead squirrels. Canoeists paddle the waters, and some developers hope to turn the canal from a post-industrial wasteland into an urban Venice—a healthy waterway lined with condominiums and restaurants.
“If dredging was done and [pollution] sources stopped, this wouldn’t be a public cesspool,” said Robert Goldstein of Riverkeeper, one of the many advocacy groups who test the canal’s water.
The Gowanus Canal was built in the mid-19th century to manage tidal marshlands in the face of Brooklyn’s growing population. Dredging began in late 1868. The deeper waterway allowed barges to haul brownstones for building homes in Park Slope as well as cargo from the factories that lined the canal’s banks. These factories included tanneries, paint, ink and soap manufacturers, cement companies and gas works. There was no sewage treatment, and within thirty years the canal became a rank place nicknamed Lavender Lake for the shiny hue of industrial waste that swirled at the surface.
In 1911 the lavender muck was partially flushed with fresh water tunneled from the East River, and the canal became one of the busiest waterways between the world wars. But the last 50 years have brought industrial decline. Brooklyn’s waterfront lost to New Jersey’s, and hauling switched from ships to trucks. After 1955, the Army Corps of Engineers stopped dredging the canal, and in 1961 the pump in the flushing tunnel broke — or was broken, jokes neighborhood activist Buddy Scotto. Without flushing, water quality in the canal quickly deteriorated.
Scotto, who grew up in the working class immigrant neighborhood that flanks the canal, still runs the family funeral parlor there. In 1964, he started the Carroll Gardens Civic Association to improve the area and prevent flight to the suburbs, cobbling together a name that honored a signer of the Declaration of Independence and the front yards of many local homes.
His goals were initially modest. “We wanted to plant trees,” Scotto recalls, sitting in the rose-covered vinyl chair of a small chapel mere hours after directing a funeral service there. “The whole Gowanus area was heavily polluted.”
As Scotto settles into the story of his efforts to revitalize the canal, he holds his glasses in the crook of his thumb. He talks about residents intimidated by the Gambino family that controlled Brooklyn’s nearby waterfront, of the cronyism of local politics, and of the apathy of government officials. He also knows the inside story on how the canal began to change in 1976.
“I’m sitting downstairs in the lobby talking, and the phone rings,” he says. It was Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, demanding to know why an alternate was replacing Scotto at the Republican National Convention. Scotto, whose activism had garnered unwanted attention, had registered Republican to avoid a political nomination in his heavily Democratic neighborhood. But he realized that this explanation wasn’t suitable for the Vice President, so he began babbling about the state of the canal and the decline of local jobs. A few days later, the federal government funded a sewage treatment plant in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Scotto attended the convention.
Local officials, however, were slower in taking action on Gowanus. Scotto turned to two professors at local New York City Technical College to analyze water samples. According to their report, the canal water was contaminated with “typhoid, typhus and a virulent strain of cholera.” Scotto recalls that a local official ripped the report from his hands with “smoke coming out of his ears,” but the document forced the city to find matching funds for sewage treatment and money to fix the flushing tunnel.
Despite these efforts, local professors such as Kathleen Nolan still use the Gowanus canal for measuring contamination. Her lab at St. Francis — a room filled with seining nets, turtle shells and jars of live fruit flies – is where she and her students carefully test the water samples on long black benches. They have found high levels of detergents, a few nitrates, ammonia, silica and plenty of dissolved oxygen. The dissolved oxygen is a big change from the days before the flushing tunnel was repaired: before 1999, life could not be sustained in the depleted water.
Nolan isn’t the only professor using the canal. Nilofaur Haque, a biologist at the New York City College of Technology, has her students analyze water samples and observe the oily substance that coats the water’s surface each afternoon. “One group of students found gonorrhea in a water drop,” said Haque. She’s particularly interested in fluorescent white gauze that lies near the canal’s bottom, and thinks that the substance is a colonizing life form that adheres to the contaminated sediments.
Out on Long Island, Brookhaven National Laboratory is using X-ray fluorescence to look at the canal’s oysters. Keith Jones, who like many credits a visit from undefeatable Buddy Scotto as the impetus for this project, has found that the Gowanus oysters are full of lead. One specific specimen was barely alive. “It was one sick oyster,” says Jones. “It was surviving but a couple of flatworms had invaded it.”
Lead is just one of the toxic compounds that fill the sediments and water of the Gowanus. A report by the Gowanus Canal Community Development Corporation noted that contaminants such as sulfur, cyanide, asbestos, PCBs, mercury and volatile organic compounds are in and along the canal. Richard Dabal, of the Army Corps of Engineers, recently collected core samples from the canal bed. When he would pull each core to the surface, “the smell of oil is so thick it would cross your eyes.”
“You have to give Scotto a lot of credit for his vision,” commented Eric Stern of the Environmental Protection Agency. Stern heads the harbor decontamination project. “It is hard to see how this could be livable.”
Plans are slowly emerging to ease the waterway’s most intractable problems. Starting next year, New York City plans to give the canal a bigger flush. This will increase water flow and remove the mounds of smelly waste. The upgrade will require shutting down the pump for the winters of 2008 and 2009 and will cost $70 million over four years — work funded through the water bills of city residents.
“When we get done, I think the Gowanus will be in pretty good shape, then all we got to do is dredge it,” said Doug Greely, the deputy commissioner for waste water treatment at New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection.
The second major phase will probably take much longer. The Army Corps of Engineers has not finalized a dredging plan or secured funds. The Corps’ Richard Dabal thinks that other options, such as entombing the sediments with a clay substance, might be a quicker way to clean the canal. Another possible solution is a combination of dredging and cleaning technology that uses high heat or additives.
Geography adds complications. Dabal notes that the canal is bordered by privately-held crumbling wood and concrete bulkheads that continue to leach toxic compounds. To prevent recontamination, the land bordering the canal also needs to be cleaned. As Brookhaven’s Jones put it, “you have to reduce the contaminants [on the land] to make it worthwhile to dredge.”
Robert Goldstein of Riverkeeper agrees that land and water must be scrubbed, and not only for local reasons. “The contaminants don’t just stay in the fish. Birds eat the fish, and birds fly all over. Wherever they drop waste, the waste contains pollution,” he says.
Revitalization, however, is moving forward despite the continued presence of sewage and chemicals. The Canoe Dredgers Club takes people on tours of the canal, the Urban Divers scour the canal’s bottom, and artists have created urban sculpture along the bulkhead. Developers are also on the scene: Shaya Boymelgreen wants to build 375 housing units on a parcel of public land, and the Toll Brothers are buying land to build luxury condominiums. There are also new businesses: a Whole Foods is under construction, and a Holiday Inn opened last autumn.
The canal is changing, but there is still much to do. After scooping up her canal water samples, Nolan walks up the cobbled street toward the Carroll Gardens subway stop. Less than a block away, next to an old factory, there’s a newly stuccoed row house complete with evergreens in Italianite urns. It’s evidence that momentum is building for a cleaner canal. She stops when she sees some graffiti — sprayed blue on a battered white wall, the words read: “You just can’t stop it.”