Toxi City: Exploring Brooklyn's Industrial Legacy


Snow on Gowanus

On Monday, Feb 21st, I took a walk around the Gowanus. It had snowed the night before.

The Carroll Street Bridge looked lovely from the Union Street Bridge. Looking at it though, I can now see it and the other bridges starting at 9th Street as sealing the fate of the Gowanus. It took me a while to understand why the development of the Newtown Creek has been so different. All these low bridges along the Gowanus at some point made industrial activity impractical. A barge still regularly leaves Benson Scrap Metal and I would guess goes to New Jersey though I don’t know for sure. That section of the canal is below all the low bridges.

From the Union Street bridge, looking the other way towards the flushing tunnel.

Water from Buttermilk Channel enters the canal and with it needed oxygen. The EPAs RI report has been made public. And what it made clear to me is that the components of coal tar left over from the canal’s three manufactured gas plants contaminate not just the soft sediment but the native sediment below that. And this stuff moves around and is probably going to keep getting into the canal from the land where there still is coal tar or NAPL-non-aqueous phase liquid. At the Union Street end of the canal that source would be the Fulton Works that was on Degraw.


Double D pool and the handball court in Thomas Green park were built right over the site where the gas plant stood. The NYSDEC is responsible to clean up this site. While the pool is unlikely to be dangerous to swimmers, the coal tar underneath it is getting into the canal and the groundwater.

Which leads me to my next thought. The contamination in the canal leads to fish and crabs living in it to accumulate toxins. So these should really not be eaten by humans. People without other alternatives do eat these things at considerable hazard to themselves and their children. While this is a serious problem, I see the true danger in the canal in flooding events. The toxins in the water and the sediments get out of the canal and people come in contact with them. Flooding events due to global warming are predicted to become much more frequent. I think this is the real reason to clean up the canal. It is never predicted to be swimmable but if what is washed onto shore during extreme weather events is less dangerous that would be a good thing.

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