By Sarah Portlock
Three hundred concerned citizens gathered in the auditorium of P.S. 32 in Carroll Gardens on a recent weeknight to hear the fate of their beloved, polluted backyard waterway: the Gowanus Canal. Would the federal Environmental Protection Agency list it as a Superfund site, granting millions of dollars to its cleanup? And, just how bad is the water, anyway?
The two-mile stretch runs parallel to Third Avenue, between Douglas and Ninth streets, with footbridges affording views of a children’s bicycle lodged in the muck and, on occasion, a dead fish floating along, belly-up. More than a hundred years of manufacturing and gas production along the canal lead to such pollution, and even with a dredging in 1975 and pumping stations that flush it with fresh water, the thing still smells.
So on Thursday night, residents in the canal’s surrounding neighborhoods wanted to know what was going to be done. One hour and six minutes into the meeting, they had their answer. Their new city councilman, Brad Lander, had asked the EPA’s emergency and remedial response director, Walter Mugdan, about the different environmental issues involved with a cleanup. In the course of determining whether the Gowanus qualifies for Superfund status, scientists will be studying its sediment contamination — that is, how dirty the mud is.
Mugdan is a tall man dressed in white and olive: his longish white hair matched his white beard and white dress shirt, and his patterned olive green tie matched his olive green slacks. He rocks forward when he talks in a deep voice, projecting to the back of the auditorium in a rhythmic cadence.
“Normally, we measure contaminated sediments in parts per million, or parts per billion, or even in parts per trillion,” he started, noting with declining scale how minimally clean mud could be.
“Here, we are measuring the contaminants by parts per hundred.”
The audience collectively gasped, and then there was a silence in the room. Mugdan just nodded.