After two months of investigating, researching and reporting, 8th grade students from Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies wrote investigative news articles about the Gowanus Canal. Each student chose their own angle and investigation to focus on. Here is one of our favorites about coal tar contamination in the Canal. 
Coal tar has been polluting the canal since the 1800’s and will be dredged out of the Canal during the Superfund clean-up process. For more about the clean up, see Gowanus Superfund.

Coal Tar In The Gowanus Canal

By: Maryory Martinez

New Tourist Attraction?

Niagara Falls, the Statue Of Liberty, Yellowstone National Park, and now the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn? There has been a new addition to the list of grand tourist attractions in the United States. A very peculiar one. Unlike other tourist attractions, the Gowanus Canal isn’t gaining publicity and tourists because of its “beauty” or its “history.” The Gowanus Canal isn’t beautiful and that’s exactly what’s luring people there. The foul smell. The filthy green water. The disgusting coal tar hidden in the depths of that water. That is luring people there. But people seem to ignore the obvious problem that the canal is facing. Coal tar is still in the canal and continues contaminate the water and the environment around it.

Severely Polluted Water

Since the late 1800s, factories and waste treatment plants would get rid of their wastes in the Gowanus Canal (Clean Water Act of 1972). Slowly, this resulted in the accumulation of coal tar on the canal’s floor, severely polluting the water. Coal tar is a thick, black liquid produced by the refining of coal that carries hazardous chemicals such as benzene, anthracene, and phenol ( This makes the canal unsafe for recreational activities such as swimming and fishing or simply being too close to the water. “What lives in the Gowanus is the most toxic bath of chemicals you can imagine,” said Dr. Robert Glatter of Lenox Hill Hospital.

What Now?

Finally, after years of protests and complaints, the Government declared the Gowanus Canal a “Superfund” site. A Superfund site is any land in the United States that has been polluted by hazardous waste and has drawn the attention of the Environmental Protection Agency. That makes it a candidate for cleanup because it poses a risk to human health and/or the environment (United States National Library of Medicine). According to a decision made by the Federal Government in 2010, the entire canal will be clean from coal tar by 2022. This decision was a huge step in the right direction.

Want to teach students about the Gowanus Canal through field studies and hands-on projects? See our STEM Gowanus Urban Ecology Curriculum for middle schools.