Canal in heart of Brooklyn undergoing lifesaving renovation
August 30, 1999
From Correspondent Deborah Feyerick
NEW YORK (CNN) -- New life is being pumped into a clogged artery in the heart of Brooklyn. Gowanus Canal was one of the country's busiest industrial waterways a century ago. But just five months ago, it had a corpse-like quality.
"The smell was horrendous -- I mean it was so bad we kept the windows shut, we burned incense, we had the air conditioner going," remembered Leonard Thomas, who has been opening and closing drawbridges along the Gowanus Canal for five years.
"People would walk by this bridge holding their nose," he said.
The canal's trouble began after World War II, when barges stopped coming into Brooklyn. Gowanus soon became a cesspool of raw sewage, a dump for garbage and other trash.
Then a propeller that kept the water flowing through the canal broke down. As it stood still and neglected for three decades, the water became more contaminated.
"In 1972, they did a study of the water," said Abu Moulta Ali of the Brooklyn Center for the Urban Environment. "They found live hepatitis, typhoid and a virulent strain of cholera in the water itself."
But now the tide is turning -- the proof seen in a simple oxygen test.
"We're already seeing larger fish, so this is actually a very good reading," said a pleased Orville Edwards of Brooklyn Center for the Urban Environment, holding his latest test results.
As with a number of the nation's abandoned or polluted waterways, life is slowly coming back to this former fish hatching ground.
The change began five months ago, when New York City's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) put in a new propeller to flush the canal -- a $10 million project.
"It's night and day; it's 180 degrees out from what it was before," said DEP Commissioner Joel Miele.
"The color of the water, the sheen of oil -- that it was -- you wouldn't have put your hand in it," said Miele as he floated down the canal. "You wouldn't have been able to get this close to it because of the aroma."
Truckloads of toxic sediment were taken away to unclog the canal. The odor is almost all gone -- but the water remains contaminated from years of industrial spillover.
The entire bottom of the canal still has to be dredged. No one knows exactly when that will be, or how best to dispose of a million pounds of silt.
Still, the community has big plans for this stretch of waterway, including a possible river walk.
"We want to see the canal now for residential, recreational and some mixed industry use," said Gowanus community leader Buddy Scotto.
But because it will take time to overcome decades of neglect, it may be years before boats once again navigate the Gowanus Canal.
Gowanus Canal Community Development Corporation
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