State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


MPA-ESP students visit the Gowanus Canal to learn about urban contamination

Written by Kaitlin Flahive 

Gowanus Canal 1

Last week, the MPA-ESP Class of 2018 ventured to Brooklyn to explore “one of the nation’s most seriously contaminated water bodies,” the Gowanus Canal.  In partnership with the local non-profit, Friends and Residents of Greater Gowanus (FROGG), Professors Benjamin Bostick and Michael Musso taught students about the realities of mixed land-use in a dense urban setting. This early center of New York industry suffers from major legacies of contamination and has seen a surge in real estate development in recent years, making it a unique and fascinating place to study environmental science and policy.

Built in the mid-1800s, the 1.8-mile long Canal functioned as a vital transportation pathway from Brooklyn’s industrial hub of manufacturing to broader markets in Manhattan and beyond. The numerous plants in the surrounding communities have historically discharged industrial waste directly into the Canal, and runoff from storm events and combined sewer overflows (CSOs) continue to carry wastewater and sanitary contaminants into the Canal. Highly-elevated levels of many contaminants, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and several heavy metals, pose contamination risks to local inhabitants of the Gowanus region of Brooklyn.

Gowanus Canal 2

Throughout the day, Dr. Bostick measured lead concentrations in the surrounding soil using handheld field equipment. Students also collected soil samples for further analysis in the laboratory back at Columbia University. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found there is “no safe blood lead level in children,” so understanding the concentrations present in the vicinity of the Canal is necessary for students and policymakers to understand the risk to the health of natural and human ecosystems.

Led by Joseph Alexiou, FROGG member and author of Gowanus: Brooklyn’s Curious Canal, students toured the Canal, witnessing the pollution, early efforts to curb further contamination and major recent community developments firsthand. The students studied the interests of, and interactions between, residents, community groups, developers and government agencies. As future policy-makers and sustainability leaders, the students analyzed how to account for each of these varying interests in decision-making processes.

In the MPA-ESP program, academic courses in Environmental Chemistry and Toxicology are supplemented by field trips such as this to allow students to develop an applied, pragmatic approach to addressing real-world problems. Using New York City as a classroom, students prepare for successful careers as environmental and sustainability professionals.

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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