Oct 7, 2007

Gowanus Canal sick with germs, City Tech professors say

A biology professor whose students found gonorrhea in the Gowanus Canal said the water is so ridden with "aggressive" strains of bacteria she wouldn't live anywhere near it.

The news comes as developers are hungrily eyeing the banks of the long-polluted canal between pricey Carroll Gardens and Park Slope for luxury condos.

"I wouldn't, and I wouldn't eat the fish either," said Niloufar Haque, a biology professor at New York City College of Technology, who has tested the canal's water for three years with her sister, Nasreen, also a professor at City Tech.

"We were just saying we wouldn't want our child growing up around that water," added Haque.

Besides gonorrhea, Haque and her students have found flu viruses and other "disease-causing" bacteria in the canal's fetid waters. But Haque said she is most disturbed by how virulent the strains appear to be.

"These are species of microorganisms that are very aggressive," said Haque. "When you take the samples and analyze them back at the lab it is scary."

The canal - once one of the most industrialized waterways in the country - has seen a resurgence in the last few years since the city first repaired its flushing tunnel in 1999 and helped cut down on its notorious smell.

When the tunnel is functioning, crabs and fish can survive in its waters and kayakers flock to its banks.

But advocates charge the canal is still far from clean, largely because it has never been dredged and raw sewage is still dumped directly into it during heavy rains, as it is in other places.

"When you put that much raw sewage into the system, it's really not surprising that you find a variety of pathogens, toxins and bacteria in the water," said Craig Michaels, an investigator with Riverkeeper, which has sued the city over the sewage issue.

Environmental Protection Department officials said yesterday they are working on several projects that will further clean up the canal, including an upgraded flushing tunnel that will increase flow by 40%, a better pumping station, and new sewer pipes to divert waste from the canal.

In the meantime, the city has begun soliciting bids for what could be the first new housing on a lot on 5th and Smith Sts.

Other big-name developers also have snapped up parcels and are pushing the city to allow luxury condos along its banks.

David Von Spreckelsen, an executive with Toll Brothers, which wants to build condos near 1st St., pointed to the city's planned upgrades for the canal and said he is confident people will want to live there.

"It doesn't worry me," said Von Spreckelsen, who a few weeks back took his young kids canoeing on the canal.

Canal booster Buddy Scotto said he has long battled the city over sewage flowing into the canal, but he said the canal is cleaner than ever and is ready for residences.

"That's the only way we can get it cleaned up," said Scotto.

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