Not a drop to drink
The Gowanus Canal has the promise of big-bucks development, the star power of its own movie, “Lavender Lake,” and is eligible to be on the National Register for Historic Places, but Newtown Creek is finally ready to surpass its rival in the malodorous spotlight.
That much was clear last month when the state doled out cleanup grants to both dumping grounds — and the Creek trounced the Canal, $625,000 to $275,000.
The grant gap has emboldened creek advocates (yes, the Newtown Creek has advocates, just like the canal) to make it known that when it comes to environmental waste, government intractability and down-and-dirty funk, nothing beats the watery border between Brooklyn and Queens. And in The Brooklyn Paper’s first-ever corpse of water smackdown (right), the Newtown Creek reigns supreme (supremely disgusting, that is).
Every year, the city’s problematic sewer system dumps 2.7 billion gallons of raw sewage into the four-mile-long creek, which divides Greenpoint from the boondocks of Queens.
On top of that, there’s 17 million gallons of oil in the mix — a spill bigger than the Exxon Valdez tanker disaster that has been leaking into the water since an underground explosion in 1950.
And, oh yeah, there’s a garden variety of chemicals and hazardous substances lurking from more than 150 years of industrial production that includes Standard Oil’s first refineries.
“A boat trip up the creek is a journey into the heart of darkness,” said the environmentalist group Riverkeeper in a report.
Compared to that, going to the Gowanus Canal is a day at the beach (not a clean beach, of course, but you get the idea).
Sure, 300 million gallons of waste annually spill into the canal from overflowing sewers, and last year, the canal suffered Spitzer-like humiliation after gonorrhea was discovered in water samples.
But unlike the creek, the canal has some salubrious things working for it.
First, it’s served by a flushing tunnel that pushes through “fresh” water from the Buttermilk Channel, keeping things from going stagnant.
Second, the city Department of Environmental Protection is inching forward on a $210-million cleanup that will make the canal safe for humans to boat on and for fish to breed in.
There’s nothing comparable brewing for Newtown Creek, despite that $625,454 state grant. And advocates say their Rodney Dangerfield of waterways needs more respect — now.
“The scale is much more severe at Newtown [that in the Gowanus Canal],” said Basil Seggos, chief investigator at Riverkeeper. “There are more toxic fields there.”
In perhaps more tangible terms, the Gowanus’s water poses less of a direct threat to humans if they’re exposed to it.
“I’ve heard stories about people falling in or going in and they lived to tell the tale,” said Bob Zuckerman, from the Gowanus Canal Community Development Corporation, he adding, “I wouldn’t recommend it.”
Anyone who falls in the creek might not be so lucky. Indeed, a man whose car fell into the muck this week died before he could be pulled out.
“It’s one of the most-polluted bodies of water on the East Coast,” Katie Schmid of the Newtown Creek Alliance told The New York Times after the Tuesday accident. “That doesn’t mean, however, to my understanding, that swimming in the water would cause death immediately. It would cause illness certainly — and even very serious illness.”
A tale of two creeks
History has long regarded both the Newtown Creek and the Gowanus Canal as a convenient sewer. But how do these fetid corpses of water compare to each other. Here’s The Brooklyn Paper’s first-ever waterway smackdown:
Length: Four miles
Raw sewage into waterway: 2.7 billion gallons per year
Revolutionary history: Lord Cornwallis and the Redcoats were stationed there before invading Manhattan.
Famous visitors: The pirate Captain Kidd, John D. Rockefeller
Famous polluters: Standard Oil
High water mark: Halfway point of NYC marathon, visible during the burial of Don Corleone in “The Godfather.”
Low water mark: Discovery of 17 million gallon oil spill in 1978
Length: 1.5 miles
Raw sewage into waterway: 300 million gallons per year
Revolutionary history: George Washington and the rebel army retreated to safety across the canal during the Battle of Brooklyn.
Famous visitors: Henry Hudson, Giovanni da Verrazzano
Famous polluters: Independent refineries and manufacturers
High water mark: Flushing tunnel turned on in 1911 to pump fresh water through canal. And sometimes, it works.
Low water mark: Bouts with gonorrhea, typhoid and cholera. (All were discovered in canal’s water.)
By Mike McLaughlin