The Gowanus Canal — the 2-mile waterway that connects the factories and industries of inner Brooklyn to the New York Harbour and the rest of the world — is widely considered to be one of the most polluted areas in the world.
Photographer and artist Steven Hirsch set out to capture the pollution, but along the way, he found unexpected beauty in the area as well.
Hirsch’s photographs of the canal depict the multitude of contaminates and chemicals floating on the slimy surface. It certainly doesn’t look like clear, clean water, but those unsettling characteristics also create odd and sometimes striking geometric shapes, swirls, and a variety of psychedelic colours, likened by many to abstract painting.
“”I would sit there on the side of the canal, and what looked like a giant painting by Monet would be there in front of me, hovering on the surface of the water,” Hirsch says.
When the area we now know as New York City was first being settled and developed in the 1600s, the Gowanus Canal was a tidal inlet full of plant life and vegetation. As early as the first part of the 1700s, however, the waterway developed into a high-traffic shipping channel and its shores became a popular site for industry, like mills, factories, tanneries, and warehouses.
With its long history of industrial and commercial use, the Gowanus Canal has a tradition of pollution. Today, its waters are widely considered to be some of the most contaminated in the world.
According to the EPA, 'as a result of years of discharges, storm water runoff, sewer outflows and industrial pollutants,' the area was named a Superfund site in 2010.
The waterway contains PCBs from coolants, coal chemicals and PAHs, heavy metals such as mercury, lead, and copper, along with other toxic materials.
Officials say these contaminants pose health threats to people who live and fish near the area, as many of these chemicals are known to cause cancer.
Animal life in the area, including ducks and herons, are at risk, too. The air in the area was found to be polluted as well, though not at a high enough level to cause any major risks.
Last year, the EPA released a plan to clean up the canal that will cost more than $500 million. The plan is said to take 8 to 10 years and will significantly lower pollution in the area, though not eliminate it altogether.
Still, industry persists in the area. Recently, Riverkeeper, a watchdog group, sued three separate companies doing business on the canal, saying they were violating the Federal Water Pollution Control Act.
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