NEW YORK — An environmental activist on Wednesday gave up less than halfway through his attempt to swim the length of a notoriously polluted New York City canal, but not before comparing it to “swimming into a dirty diaper.”
Christopher Swain, a clean-water activist, cited weather concerns in abandoning his effort to swim Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal, described by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as among the nation’s “most extensively contaminated” bodies of water.
Swain, 47, climbed out of the 1.8 mile (2.9-km) canal less than an hour into his swim to mark Earth Day and press for a speedier clean-up of its water.
He said he encountered unexpected delays as well as growing winds and dark clouds that threatened a possible storm.
“It’s probably the safest move at this point,” he said after swimming what he estimated was about two-thirds of a mile (1 km).
Years of dumping of pollutants ranging from industrial waste to sewage have contaminated the Gowanus Canal with toxic substances including pesticides, heavy metals and cancer-causing PCBs, according to the EPA.
“It’s a chemical cornucopia,” EPA spokesman Elias Rodriguez said.
Biology students from the New York City College of Technology reportedly found gonorrhea in a drop of water from the canal, the New York University student-run publication Scienceline wrote in 2007.
Swain said he was unconcerned about health risks, largely because he was wearing a protective dry suit, gloves, boots, flippers and a swim cap.
“It’s just like swimming into a dirty diaper,” he said.
Completed in 1869, the canal was cut through the borough of Brooklyn to feed commercial activity around factories that once powered part of the city’s economy.
Today, it cuts through gentrifying residential neighborhoods and is mostly known for its foul odor and display of garbage at low tide.
A day ahead of Swain’s planned plunge, the EPA wrote on its Twitter feed that it “strongly advises AGAINST swimming in the #Gowanus Canal.”
But Swain vowed to try again. “I promise someday I’ll swim the entire Gowanus Canal,” he said.
In 2010, the EPA placed the canal on its Superfund National Priorities List, opening the way for cleanup efforts.
Dredging its contaminated sediment bed and other rehabilitation measures are expected to cost an estimated $506 million and be completed in 2022 under the agency’s plan.
Dredging has yet to start, the agency said.