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Saint Ann's Student takes on the Gowanus Canal

Saint Ann's Student Takes on the Gowanus Canal

Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal is technically a canal, but could more accurately be described as a garbage dump, city sewer, stagnant sludge bucket, and toxic waste site. Hundreds of years ago, the Gowanus area was a marshy wetland of small creeks and meadows, swarming with wildlife. The area became home to many Dutch settlers, who quickly began to industrialize the site. The canal was officially born in 1664, when Peter Stuyvesant gave settlers permission to build a creek leading into Brooklyn.  At the time, Stuyvesant’s decision seemed insignificant.  Little did he know that the canal would become one of the most polluted waterways in the world. Now clogged with over 300 cubic tons of toxic waste and raw sewage leaking from gutter backups, the Gowanus has been designated a national Superfund site by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. This title officially declares the site a detriment to common life in the area, and labels it a recipient of federal funding for sustainability.  Being a lover of New York’s grimy corners, I decided last fall to investigate the canal for a year-long research project. I dove straight in to collect and analyze water samples.

Standing on the bank of the Gowanus Canal, one sees many things. The most striking is, of course, the water quality. The canal is primarily a stagnant pool, but on occasion rain or the rarely successful flushing pumps force the water to move. These events cause only fleeting improvements in the water’s appearance and smell. On a typical day like the one when I visited, the canal’s almost black water flows slowly with specks of rainbow oil, grimy sediment, and occasional swarms of mutant brown guppies. Occasionally, bubbles float from the tire, tar, and street-sign-strewn canal bed.

If an observer were to ignore the canal’s bleak presence, the surrounding area would seem clean and peaceful. After all, the Gowanus neighborhood is quickly conforming to Brooklyn’s gentrified standard. A Whole Foods grocery store and a pair of stark glass condos have sprouted up in the midst of the once industrial sector. As I stood on the small dock with my bucket in hand, I could only wonder what kinds of mysterious toxins I would soon be bringing with me back to school.

Back in the laboratory, I investigated the state of my Gowanus sample. Following two extensive surface water sampling tests, one session of microscopy or visual work, two three-mile trudges, and an acrid alcohol spill, I reached the following conclusions about the canal’s toxicity: pesticides and Coliform bacteria were abundant, while lead was not. The water’s pH was around 7 (neutral), and the mineral content was as predicted, strikingly high. Microscopy was relatively uneventful, as the floating remnants of algae, sticks, and stop signs did not reveal any unique findings.

The next step in my Gowanus journey is to decontaminate my sample with natural agents such as snails and oil hungry bacteria, combined with sea grass. I hope to not only understand the condition of the canal, but to also learn how to improve its overall health. I hope to soon return to the peaceful griminess of the Gowanus Canal to collect, analyze, and attempt to remediate samples from even lower depths. Perhaps one day my research will contribute to broader efforts to ameliorate the canal’s water quality.

-Nicholas Z.

(Photography by Natalie N. and Nicholas Z.)