May 19, 2003, Monday


What Rots Beneath; Investigating Exactly What Fouls the Gowanus Canal

Ah, the Gowanus, that fetid Brooklyn canal synonymous with contamination and death. Sewage, industrial waste -- perhaps even human remains -- still molder at its murky bottom. On occasion, its famously noxious, sulfurous aroma wafts over its banks. But now, as if to collect that batty neighbor living in a clutter of cats and old string, the men (and one woman) in white suits have finally arrived.

For the past few weeks, a team of scientists and technicians from the Army Corps of Engineers has been putting on protective coveralls and setting out along the waterway that snakes from Butler Street out to Gowanus Bay. Equipped with sample jars, hollow-stem augurs and drills, they have been delving far into the repellent depths to catalog, in minute detail, just what is festering in all that muck. It is not pretty work, but it is far from thankless.

''You can't begin to come up with any kind of engineering plan until you understand the situation that you have,'' said Col. John B. O'Dowd, a brawny, affable man who is the New York District commander of the Army Corps of Engineers. ''Once you can sit back and look at the picture of what you have, then you can begin to look at what you can do to improve it.''

To help draw that picture, the corps and the City Department of Environmental Protection are splitting the $5 million cost of the Gowanus Canal and Bay Ecosystem Restoration study. The project, whose final report should be available by January 2005, is intended to offer potential solutions to the environmental problems and to determine what future activities the canal and its surrounding area could sustain.

So the corps team, which includes a biologist and a geologist, has been out there, working to test the water quality, identify plant and animal life, and collect samples of what lies beneath. Their work should be completed soon, but the results are months away. Still, some hopeful signs have surfaced in the polluted canal. On a recent morning, for example, the team came across several snails, glass eels and some juvenile shrimp. ''That's important for us because it lets us know that all the different life cycles are represented,'' said Pamela Lynch, the biologist.

People have been working for years to bring the noxious waterway back from the brink. Built in the late 19th century as a commercial thruway, the canal was soon fouled by sewage. In 1911, the city opened a flushing tunnel that moved in cleaner water from the Buttermilk Channel, but the tunnel broke down in the 1960's and was left unrepaired for more than three decades. That, combined with industrial waste from nearby plants, turned the canal into a stagnant, putrid nose-sore.

But largely through the work of local environmental and development groups, the Gowanus, long a reputed dumping ground for corpses, has been coming back. The flushing tunnel was reactivated in 1999. Oysters -- bivalves that can filter tremendous amounts of water each day -- have been introduced into the canal and are surviving. Jellyfish, bluefish, cormorants, ducks and egrets have appeared in and around the yellow-green waters. Harbor seals have even been sighted. The many different notions of what the canal should become -- a little Venice, a recreation area, a peaceful wetland habitat -- no longer seem firmly rooted in fantasy.

The Gowanus is now so vibrant that it can even support its own avant garde art project. Red Dive, a group of artists who create multimedia performance installations, is planning a performance tour called Peripheral City: Rediscovering the Gowanus Canal. In the show, which is to run over two weekends beginning Saturday, the audience will walk through a tunnel and then board a boat to ride along the canal. At various points, there will be a soundtrack of voices, culled from recordings of residents talking about the canal. Those will be interspersed with performances along the banks.

''I saw the canal as this container for so many forces and needs and drives,'' said Maureen Brennan, artistic director of Red Dive. ''Here's this place that embodies a history of fear and all the bad things about human waste and pollution and decay, and now it's this container for hope and renewal and reclaiming.''

Still, the Gowanus is far from ready for toe-dipping. ''You fall in that water,'' Colonel O'Dowd joked with Webster Shipley, a project geologist, one afternoon, ''the least of your worries is drowning.''

The canal still receives loads of sewage when heavy rains overwhelm the sewer system, as well as runoff from its industrial neighbors like an oil depot and a gravel yard. Indeed, what has ended up in the sediment will also help determine its final resting place. Depending on the contaminants present, said Thomas J. Shea, the project manager for the corps, any sediment dredged out of the canal could potentially be mixed with neutralizing agents and then used to top off a landfill or make building materials.

So the work of collecting and classifying the feculence continues. With a rig set up on a barge, the team drives a contraption called a split-spoon into the canal bottom, which sucks up the muck into a hollow metal tube that can be split open once it is back on board. The scientists use a meter to detect any volatile gases that might be in the sample. Sometimes, depending on the consistency of the sediment, the core samples are difficult to obtain.

''Upstream we had been hitting an oozy black mud, so we had some problems taking a sample,'' Mr. Shipley said just before the driller, Albert McNamara, and his assistant, John Letke, began digging the team's ninth hole of the day.

Mr. Shipley, who has been filling his van with jars of muck from various spots in the canal, said that he already had some idea of what is lurking in the water, including creosote, a wood preservative probably used on retaining walls that line the canal, and viruses from all the sewage. The other day, the team pulled up small piles of gravel, black mud and several round disks they had drilled from a stack of three-quarter-inch plywood.

There is nasty stuff at the bottom of the canal, they say. ''Man's been playing around with the Gowanus Canal for 100-something years,'' Colonel O'Dowd said. ''So who knows what you're going to find?''

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