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Gowanus Canal: The $500 Million Makeover
Peace Titilawo

The Gowanus Canal is full of contradictions. If you take a look at the canal, which lies between Carroll Gardens and Park Slope in Brooklyn, you might see dirty black tires and plastic lawn chairs floating in the water. If you take a sniff, you might smell a hint of gutter stench.

But you will also admire the beautiful white flowers growing along the banks. You may notice the natural, fresh aroma of the nearby plant nursery, and see the garden with its appealing birdhouses. They are all struggling to make the message loud and clear: The Gowanus Canal may be a polluted waterway, but it is nevertheless a place where biodiversity is cherished, and the future is valued.

That hasn’t always been the case. Before it was turned into a canal in the 1860s, Gowanus was a creek fed by small streams. It was a healthy place where the water flowed naturally and plants grew. However, once people turned it into a canal and urbanized the surrounding area, it became a smelly, stagnant body of water. Then it became a dumping ground for industrial waste. It got so bad that the New York Times recently described it as “a fetid stew of dangerous chemicals and toxins, an embodiment of the worst excesses of the industrial age.”

Hans Hesselein, a landscape architect who works for the Gowanus Canal Conservancy, said that most of the pollutants in the canal “are the waste from three former manufactured gas plants that once created municipal gas along the canal’s banks.” The manufactured gas plants produced a byproduct called coal tar, which they dumped directly into the canal. The coal tar contaminated the water and made it toxic to aquatic life. It’s also bad for people: Coal tar can cause cancer in humans if we come into contact with large amounts of it.

Superfund to the Rescue

For decades, no one did anything about the pollution. But in March 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency designated the canal a Superfund site. The EPA’s Superfund program is tasked with cleaning up the nation’s abandoned and dangerous waste sites. The program has been protecting people and cleaning up pollution at the worst sites for the past three decades. Currently, according to the EPA website, there are more than 40,000 Superfund sites in the U.S., but only 1,000 have been chosen as priority cleanup sites. The Gowanus Canal is one of them.

The Superfund process is quite complicated. Right now, the EPA’s main concern is to identify the companies that dumped pollutants into the canal, and make those companies pay the bill for the clean-up. Then there are several other steps.

“The feasibility study should take a year, the design strategy should take about a year or two, and [actually getting] the job done should take about eight years,” Hesselein explained. One part of the process is dredging the canal, which means removing sediment and pollutants through the process of scooping and suction. In all, it may take 12 to15 years and $500 million to clean up the water.

image by YC-Art Dept

Unfortunately, industrial pollution isn’t the only problem. When terrible rainstorms occur, the city’s sewage system gets overwhelmed and ends up overflowing into the canal. Hesselein described seeing—and smelling—that happen one day last summer: “It was the most utterly disgusting and one of the strongest smells I’ve ever experienced, but also the most remarkable thing I’ve ever seen,” he said. It looked like a volcano was erupting under water and the canal turned pitch black. Floating objects spewed out of the water and the tide reversed course. The city is working on the problem of sewage in the canal, while the EPA focuses on cleaning out the industrial pollutants.

Working for a Better Future

The fate of the Gowanus Canal depends on the success of the EPA’s clean-up, but also on what the citizens of New York do to make it a healthier area. “When people think about the Gowanus Canal, they think it is whatever the opposite of a healthy ecosystem is…but it can be a robust ecosystem,” Hesselein said. That’s where community groups like the Gowanus Canal Conservancy come in.

The Gowanus Canal Conservancy’s major goal is to reintroduce wildlife to create more biodiversity along the canal. Just last summer, the conservancy began planting gardens on the banks of the canal, and building birdhouses to attract different species of birds. (No birds have moved in yet, though.)

The conservancy has also organized clean-up days so community members can help pick up trash around the canal. Other local groups have initiated art projects to beautify the area. For instance, Brooklyn artist Anthony Clune has encouraged the clean-up by painting a big, pink sign that shows a jaunty octopus and reads “Super Fun Super Fund.”

It’s not just Brooklyn residents who should be thinking about water pollution. “The citizens of New York City can do a lot to help enhance their local waterways,” Hesselein said. “First, they have to realize that anything they flush down the toilet or throw into the street is probably going to be washed into the Gowanus Canal, Hudson River, East River, or any of the other receiving bodies of water surrounding the city, during most rain events. Pick up trash, refrain from littering, and do not dispose of toxic substances down the drain,” he added.

The future of the canal remains uncertain; will it be viewed as a place full of hope and promise, or will it continue to be seen as a disgusting and hazardous site? If the government follows through on its promise to remove the pollutants—and stops companies from polluting further—it might just become a success story.

This story is part of the media/news literacy series, which is generously supported by the McCormick Foundation.

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