Blogs > Boat Blog > Toxic muck and methane bubbles: Going into the Gowanus

Toxic muck and methane bubbles: Going into the Gowanus


View more images on our Flickr site

As part of our boat patrol, Riverkeeper rides into one of the worst-contaminated waterways in North America.

The 1.8-mile Gowanus Canal, an industrial dumping ground for 150 years, is a greenish-gray channel through Brooklyn where the water bubbles with methane. Brown gobs of coal tar – an industrial byproduct dumped into the land – rise from the muck and spring into rainbow-colored slicks that swirl over the water’s surface.

The smell can be overpowering, and heavy rains overload the drainage system and send waves of sewage toward New York Harbor.

Wanna see?

Here are some photos from our most recent patrol of the Gowanus. Riverkeeper’s Capt. John Lipscomb makes regular trips there as part of his 12-day routine patrol of the Hudson and its tributaries — a trip of about 150 miles each way. In a typical year of patrols, he puts about 5,000 miles on the boat.

He monitors activity in and around the canal, and assists researchers like Queens College student Brian Brigham, who comes aboard to test water samples for salinity, dissolved oxygen, turbidity, methane concentration and methane “flux,” or transfer from water into atmosphere. The canal is heavily contaminated with PCBs, heavy metals and pesticides, among other things.

Riverkeeper has long fought for steps to reverse this ecological disaster. We support the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s recently finalized plans for a Superfund cleanup, a project expected to cost half a billion dollars. Not only will this cleanup plan result in the removal of toxic mud from the canal, but it will reduce ongoing sewage discharges that can be laced with toxic chemicals.

Right now, Brooklyn neighborhoods largely turn away from the canal — much as communities along the Hudson did before Riverkeeper started our work nearly 50 years ago. Imagine Brooklyn in years to come, oriented toward the canal.

Lipscomb can spot at least one little sign of progress: mussels that have taken up residence between the beams of a wooden bulkhead. The whole area was once a salt marsh, with deep drainage creeks.

“It was a watershed,” Lipscomb says. “Now it’s a sewershed.”

See more photos on Flickr.

Want to learn more about the Gowanus Canal Superfund site? The EPA is holding two meetings in Brooklyn this month: Wednesday, Nov. 13, 6:30 – 9:00 p.m., at P.S. 32 Samuel Mills Sprole School, 317 Hoyt St., Gowanus; and Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013, 6:30 – 9:00 p.m. at South Brooklyn Community High School, 173 Conover St., Red Hook. Contact Natalie Loney, EPA Community Involvement Coordinator for the Gowanus Canal at 212-637-3639 or 1-800-346-5009 or visit the project website,

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