A Premature Plunge into the Gowanus Canal

By Elias Rodriguez

The Gowanus Canal harbors a legacy of industrial waste.

The Gowanus Canal harbors a legacy of industrial waste.

Last week, a gentleman garnered widespread media attention in New York by deliberately swimming in Brooklyn’s highly contaminated Gowanus Canal. This urban water body is on EPA’s National Priorities List of the country’s most hazardous waste sites. The Gowanus is scheduled for a cleanup under our Superfund program.

It seemed like every tabloid and television station in the Big Apple contacted us to ask if it was safe to swim in the Gowanus Canal. In a word: NO! As you can see from our color-coded hazard guide, direct contact with the water of the Gowanus should be avoided to reduce exposure risks.

Color Coded ChartWhat’s in the Gowanus? Data shows the widespread presence of more than a dozen contaminants, including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and various metals, including mercury, lead and copper, at high levels in its sediment. PAHs and metals were also found in the canal water. PAHs in the canal come mostly from former manufactured gas plants which used coal to make gas. PCBs were used as coolants and lubricants in transformers, capacitors and other electrical equipment. PCBs are suspected carcinogens and can have neurological effects. PAHs are also suspected carcinogens.

The origin of the Gowanus Canal goes back to the 19th century. It was envisioned as a transportation route for goods and services and, after its completion in the 1860s, the canal became an important link for commerce in the city. Manufactured gas plants, coal yards, concrete-mixing facilities, chemical plants and oil refineries were established along its banks. The canal was additionally an outlet for untreated industrial waste, raw sewage and runoff. Fast-forward to 2015 and you’ll see in the Gowanus’ murky water a legacy of urban and industrial pollution in the midst of thriving Brooklyn neighborhoods.

EPA’s $506 million cleanup calls for the removal of contaminated sediment and the capping of dredged areas. The comprehensive plan also includes controls to reduce sewage overflows and other land-based sources of pollution from re-contaminating the waters and ruining the cleanup.

EPA’s progress to date at the Gowanus Canal has been faster than at any other site of comparable complexity anywhere in the nation. We are currently working on the remedial design for the cleanup project to be followed by the start of actual dredging in 2016. When all the work is done, circa 2022, the Gowanus will be in much better shape. In the meantime, the EPA’s No Swimming warning is serious and remains in effect.

About the Author: Elias serves as EPA Region 2’s bilingual public information officer. Prior to joining EPA, the proud Nuyorican worked at Time Inc. conducting research for TIME, LIFE, FORTUNE and PEOPLE magazines. He is a graduate of Hunter College, Baruch College and the Theological Institute of the Assembly of Christian Churches in NYC.

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