Man swims extremely polluted Gowanus Canal on Earth Day

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Wednesday, April 22, 2015
Man swims through polluted Gowanus Canal
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Darla Miles follows the story of a clean water advocate who took an Earth Day swim to draw attention to the polluted state of the Gowanus Canal.

NEW YORK (WABC) -- It's one of the most polluted waterways in the Tri-State, and on Wednesday, in honor of Earth Day, a clean water activist attempted to swim the 1.8-mile canal in Brooklyn to call attention to the chemical cesspool and to efforts to try to clean it up.

Christopher Swain wore a protective suit as he went over a railing and into the water around 2 p.m. Wednesday. He was accompanied by a woman in a kayak, paddling a few feet away from him.

The 19th-century canal was once a major transportation route, but it's now so polluted with industrial and sewer discharges that it must, by law, be cleaned up.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency says contaminates include PCBs, which were banned in the U.S. in 1979.

The canal runs over 1.5 miles through a narrow industrial zone near some of Brooklyn's wealthiest neighborhoods.

"It's puncture resistant, because who knows, right?" Swain said of his suit, which is sealed at the hands, feet and neck.

For him, it was a necessary accessory for a dip in the scary stew of toxic sludge.

"Could I get diarrhea? Yeah. Could I get dysentery? Yeah," he said. "The hope is no, I won't...Dysentery would be bad. Dysentery would be like you went to a really rough place in the developing world and got really sick."

The murky abyss is also teeming with E. coli, arsenic and something called coal tar.

"There's stuff mutating in there that doesn't exist anywhere else on earth," freelance journalist Dan Nosowitz said.

Nosowitz wrote about the old industrial waterway for "Popular Science" magazine. When he set out to learn what would happen if he drank the water, the answer was nothing good.

The EPA has declared the Gowanus a superfund site, planning a cleanup that may take a decade and cost half a billion dollars.

"It goes down maybe 20 feet under the canal, the land alongside it totally contaminated, everything needs to be dredged," Nosowitz said. "It's a huge project."

As for Swain, his stunt attracted the attention of the feds. The EPA tweeted Tuesday that it, "strongly advises against swimming in the Gowanus Canal."

But that wasn't enough to dissuade Swain.

"I love the water and love can make you do crazy things," he said. "It's lovely toxic soup, a little cocktail."

Crazy as it may seem, Swain said he was careful and had made the Coast Guard and other authorities aware.

Unfortunately, things didn't go exactly as planned. Swain needed to get special permission for the end of his swim to decontaminate himself, and after that, bad weather moved in, forcing Swain out of the water after just two-thirds of a mile.

But for him, it's only a minor setback.

"It's OK, you know, things don't always work out," he said. "In a way, this is a nice metaphor. It's going to take more than one day to clean up the entire Gowanus Canal."