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Ten Feet of Black Mayonnaise: A Day on the Gowanus Canal

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Continuing with our Summer on the Gowanus coverage, last Monday the fine people at Riverkeeper were kind enough to allow us to accompany them on one of their monthly patrols of the canal.

The thing about pollution—the thing, that is, that makes it so easy to deny or ignore—is that a lot of the time you can't see it, even when it's right in front of you. The Hudson River, for instance, is very blue and pristine-looking, but if you drank water from it you would either get really sick or turn into a radioactive superhero (probably get sick.) The Gowanus Canal is not like that. The Gowanus Canal is, for lack of a better word, disgusting. As soon as you enter the canal, the water changes from rolling blue waves to a stagnant, milky-green muck. Pools of oil bubble to the surface and sit there like huge paint chips. Scum and bits of garbage float around and congregate against the canal walls. It is seriously, seriously gross.

Everybody knows that the Gowanus is a polluted mess. (It was finally declared a Superfund site in 2010.) We set out to learn just how polluted it is, and what's currently being done about it.

Riverkeeper is a watchdog organization dedicated to protecting the Hudson River and its tributaries from pollution. One of their methods is maintaining a small boat for research and patrol purposes. We met the boat on Newtown Creek last Monday and accompanied Captain John Lipscomb, First Mate Rob Friedman, an intern named Michael, and two educators from the Clearwater Organization on a patrol of Newtown and the Gowanus.

Newtown Creek, like the Gowanus, is a heavily polluted industrial waterway. In addition to containing quite a bit of raw sewage, it's also the site of the Greenpoint oil spill, one of the largest recorded spills in United States history (more than twice the size of the far more famous Exxon Valdez spill), during which between 17 and 30 million gallons of oil leaked into the creek from the oil processing plants that line its banks. The water doesn't look quite as bad as the Gowanus, but you definitely don't want to touch it. Newtown Creek was declared a Superfund site around six months after the Gowanus, but it's already years behind in terms of cleanup, for reasons we'll get into later. Some of the oil companies are actually taking part in rectifying the damage from the spill because a) they're getting sued, and b) they want the oil back. They call what they're doing "Pollution Recovery."

From Newtown Creek we headed down the East River into Upper New York Bay, where we briefly crossed paths with some swimmers finishing the 8 Bridges Swim, which was pretty cool. Then we headed into the Gowanus, which, as we mentioned before, is gross.

The scope of the Gowanus' pollution is somewhat difficult to grasp (the bottom of the canal, for instance, is coated with what is commonly described as "ten feet of black mayonnaise"—a gummy layer of pollutants too various to list that has grown to ten feet high.) Here's Josh Verleun, one of Riverkeeper's lawyers, to explain:

Josh went on to elaborate on the cleanup efforts. In 2009, when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed that the Gowanus be designated a Superfund site, the city came out in opposition, fearing—even though the pollution of Gowanus wasn't a secret or anything—that the Superfund label would halt development in the area indefinitely. The city also claimed that the EPA takes a really, really long time to clean up a Superfund site (which is true) and that they could use tax dollars to do it much faster (sure, whatever.) As a result, now that the Gowanus Canal is officially Superfunded, the EPA is moving at unprecedented rates, basically to show up the city. They are, in essence, spite-cleaning the Gowanus. Hey, whatever works. (It's still going to take a really long time—a decade at the very least. Currently, they're still in the information-gathering stage.)

Meanwhile, Captain John was taking small groups on tours of the canal in a motorized tin boat. (The main Riverkeeper boat is too big to fit under some of the bridges that go over the canal.) He made everyone wear life vests, not, as he explained, because he didn't think we could swim, but rather because if you did go overboard, you wouldn't want your head submerged for even a second.

We took our tour with Linda, a member of the Friends & Residents of Greater Gowanus, who became engaged in a lively discussion with Captain John about what would happen once the appropriately named Flushing Tunnel was reopened. Captain John was against pumping all the polluted water into New York Harbor. "If my labrador retriever takes a shit on the carpet," he explained, "I don't clean it up by taking the shit and smearing it all over the walls so thin that nobody can see it." Linda responded that the neighborhoods surrounding the canal had felt like Brooklyn's dumping grounds for a long time. They both conceded that they could see each other's points.

All in all, it was a fun day. We only got a little sunburned, First Mate Rob gave us half his sandwich, and we haven't sprouted gills or a third arm yet, so we're chalking this one up as a win. Remember, the Gowanus Canal can give you dance parties, but it can also give you around eight million different strains of E. coli. Let's all hope for a brighter tomorrow.
· Official site: Riverkeeper [Riverkeeper.org]
· Riverkeeper Boat Blog [Riverkeeper]
· Summer on the Gowanus [Curbed]