What you learn and see on a boat tour of the Gowanus

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This is an actual view you can see on a boat tour of the Gowanus. Photos by Sam Corbin

The Gowanus canal has a longstanding reputation as Brooklyn’s premier dumping site (both literally and figuratively speaking). Before it was a toxic wasteland, though, the canal was a thoroughfare for burgeoning industry in Brooklyn. It’s a body of biological warfare, sure, but it also used to have a utilitarian function for the city. It’s only in recent years that the agenda has had to shift, from shuttling things across the water to staying the heck out of the water.

Last Thursday, Brokelyn went on a boat tour of the Gowanus Canal hosted by Open House New York and led by Gowanus by Design’s David Briggs and the Gowanus Canal Conservancy’s Andrea Parker. Besides learning a little more about the history of the canal itself, we got to hear plenty of dirty talk—that is, plenty of tidbits about what’s really going on with the canal water. What’s up with the toxin levels? Will eating the fish kill you? Can you power your car with the canal’s oil-sweat? These questions and more were addressed by Briggs and Parker on the tour. We’ve got some choice quotes for you here below, accompanied by a slideshow of snapshots. #NoFilter; again, literally and figuratively speaking.

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We decided we just had to ask if people actually ate fish from the Gowanus. Briggs’ answer? “There’s been a lot of discussion and disagreement about just how clean is clean. But when fish come into the canal, they have a certain level of PCBs in them. When they’re fished out and tested, their PCB levels have doubled.”

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Hey, want to hear something weirdly interesting about the Gowanus? According to Briggs, “The sediment [at the bottom of the canal] has so much oil that it actually has energy value.”

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Of course, no tour would be complete with that lovely Gowanus water. “It’s not parts per million here,” Briggs told us about the chemical levels in the water. “It’s parts per cent. It’s really nasty stuff,”

“There’s just a lot of trash. There are stories of people dumping bodies,” Parker added.

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