Places that Matter

Gowanus Canal Conservancy

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GCC facilities at the Salt Lot
GCC facilities at the Salt Lot
Salt Lot
GCC facilities at the Salt Lot
GCC Volunteers at the Salt Lot
GCC facilities at the Salt Lot
GCC Citizen Pruners and Volunteer Coordinators Bob Lesko and Jennifer Roberts
Bob Lesko prunes trees in the Gowanus Canal Watershed
Environmental non-profit organization advocating for a healthy Gowanus Canal Watershed
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“Well, the Gowanus Canal has always been the source of community agitation and concern,” says Hans Hesselein, Executive Director of the Gowanus Canal Conservancy (GCC). “People always loved it, but from day one it was always a fetid, smelly open sewer, and the repository for vast amounts of industrial pollution. It’s always been a significant landmark between two very vibrant and healthy communities, and it’s been something that people wanted to address.”

Known semi-affectionately as “Lavender Lake” due to its unnatural coloration, the 1.8 mile Gowanus Canal has indeed long been a source of community conversation and consternation. Originally a navigable creek in a system of wetlands, during the second half of the 19th century the Gowanus was deepened into a vital commercial waterway conveying goods from South Brooklyn factories to Upper New York Bay. Local industry and population grew along with the canal, and by the 20th century its banks were crammed with manufactured gas plants, tanneries, coal yards, paint factories and a variety of other toxic enterprises. Humorous nicknames aside, decades worth of sewage and garbage from surrounding industrial and residential neighborhoods turned the canal into one of the most polluted waterways in the world.
In the mid-1960s, local activist and funeral director Buddy Scotto galvanized his neighbors to establish the Gowanus Canal Community Development Corporation (GCCDC), which contracted a study of the canal in the name of public health. The results, although not surprising, were not good. The study reported the presence of typhoid, typhus and cholera, and contaminants including oil, lead, PCBS and mercury. The GCCDC successfully lobbied for the construction of a sewage treatment plant to process waste from the Bond Street sewer (1987), and to reactivate the defunct Flushing Tunnel pump to circulate fresh, aerated water from the East River’s Buttermilk Channel, and siphon out the hazardous canal water and notoriously rotten smells (1999). However, waste from the sewer system’s 14 combined sewer overflow (CSO) points continued to pollute the Gowanus when rainstorms overwhelmed the system and spilled sewage into the canal.
21st century politicians allocated funds to the GCCDC to study and undertake environmental mitigation projects like street-end garden construction, and to create a revitalization plan for the canal watershed. But pressing CSO issues were thrust into high relief in 2006 with the proposed construction of the Brooklyn Nets’ arena and surrounding residential development in Central Brooklyn -- all of which threatened to increase the volume of waste carried by the already overburdened sewer system.