Canal to be safe for fish, not us

The Brooklyn Paper
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Gowanus Canal–area residents say government agencies are selling them down the river by not pushing for a cleanup that will make the fetid waterway safe for swimming someday.

Community groups have long dreamed of a canal lined by parks, cafes and, perhaps, even a swimming hole — but at a meeting last Thursday at the Belarusian Church on Atlantic Avenue, federal officials made it clear that they were not ready to plunge in towards the same vision.

“The immediate goal is to meet the current classifica­tion,” said Suzanne Mattei, regional director for the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

“Meaning we want fish to propagate in it and have secondary recreational contact with it,” like kayaking, she added.

Such a prognosis for the sick canal prompted Diane Buxbaum, a Carroll Gardens resident and Sierra Club member to ask, “Why are we setting our goals so low?”

Buxbaum and others want the canal, which was Brooklyn’s 20th-century dumping ground, to become its 21st-century playground, which would be safe for activities like swimming and fishing.

At issue is the city’s $210-million, decade-long plan to clean the Gowanus so that fish can breed, though humans can’t swim.

The main barrier to higher standards is the city sewer system, which discharges raw waste into the canal during heavy rains. These so-called combined sewer overflows (CSOs) prevent backups in homes or floods in the street, but they are a continual source of pollution for the Gowanus.

It would take hundreds of million dollars to eliminate such CSOs, and Jim Olander of the federal Environmental Protection Agency said the result would not be all that noticable.

“No matter how much money you spend to eliminate CSOs, there’s [limited] water quality improvement,” he said.

Scientists say the canal can only be made fit for swimming if the city not only fully controls the CSOs, but also takes greater control over planned development.

“We would also need to create a green buffer to prevent any raw sewage or other contaminants being dumped directly into canal,” said Danlin Yu, a professor of urban geography at Montclair State University.

The area around the canal is of intense interest to real-estate developers who are seeking to build residential housing in the former manufacturing hub.

Updated 4:34 pm, July 9, 2018
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