State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

MPA Students Tour Gowanus Canal

The Gowanus Canal Superfund Site.

On June 27, students and faculty from the Master of Public Administration in Environmental Science and Policy program (MPA-ESP) traveled to the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, N.Y., to see how environmental science, policy and public activism come together in an urban setting.The trip was organized as a part of the students’ Environmental Chemistry and Toxicology class to provide a tangible demonstration of the effects of decades of pollution on a local waterway and the community around it. Following the tour of the Gowanus Canal, students had the option of going on a tour of the Lower East Side Ecology Center Electronic Waste Recycling Warehouse to learn more about an international environmental problem and how a local organization is working to mitigate it.

The students met with members of a local community activist group called Friends & Residents of Greater Gowanus, or FROGG, who lead the tour of the canal and the community surrounding it. The tour gave students a good feel for the neighborhood before they got to see the harsh juxtaposition of the canal itself. Upon arriving at the canal for the first time students were met with the sight of an unmistakable environmental disaster. “I have never seen that color green in nature before” observed one student, while others appeared visually uncomfortable from what they smelled and saw.

Members of Friends and Residents of the Greater Gowanus (FROGG) lead tours of the canal.

During the tour, students were able to learn the history of Gowanus Canal from the FROGG guides’ perspective with supplements form the Columbia professors. They focused on its historical context, the settlement of the area and how it became one of the densest industrial areas in America. The tour guides discussed the effects of continued pollution from combined sewage overflow and its classification as a Superfund site, and the contemporary cleanup effort. The MPA-ESP class was able to see some of the industry responsible for persistent pollutants such as the coal gasification industry that existed before widespread adoption of electricity, and see how continued input of pollutants is obstructing the Environmental Protection Agency’s cleanup efforts. The FROGG guides explained to the students how a tunnel was being constructed to provide water, and, more importantly, dissolved oxygen to the top of the canal to prevent the current anaerobic conditions that lead to the smell – a topic that meshed perfectly with students’ environmental chemistry curriculum.

Students visit the Lower East Side Ecology Center Electronic Waste Recycling Warehouse.

After the tour of the canal students walked over to the Lower East Side Ecology Center Electronic Waste Recycling Warehouse to learn more about how electronic waste can become a problem for developing communities that try to separate out precious materials but wind up exposed to toxins.  Professor Benjamín Bostick explained “Facilities like these are critical because those electronics are made of the most exotic, and often most toxic, sorts of things. We need to recycle carefully. And manually.”

The warehouse was emptier than normal on account of there having been no recent major collections and recent shipments to further processing facilities. Even so, the warehouse was full of old electronics of various ages and conditions. Some are even verified for functionality and resold at extreme discounts to help fund the facility. “It was awesome…like seeing the evolution of Macs,” remarked MPA ESP student Brittany Simon in reference to the numerous products that could be seen from Apple, including many iMac G3s from 1998.

The field trip was offered to demonstrate to students how environmental issues are connected to one another as well as to demonstrate the effects they have on the population.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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