Move over Gowanus, Newtown Creek is WAY grosser, says daredevil swimmer

May 9, 2018 By Scott Enman Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Clean water activist Chris Swain has swum some of America’s most toxic waterways, including the Gowanus Canal three times. Yet out of all of his plunges, Newtown Creek was the most horrifying, he said.   Photo courtesy of Chris Swain
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The Gowanus Canal gets all the attention, but Newtown Creek is so much more disgusting.

That filthy bill of health comes from clean water activist Christopher Swain — and he should know, given his years paddling in the country’s most toxic waterways, including the entire East River, the Gowanus Canal (three times!) and the pungent body of water separating Brooklyn from Queens.

“Newton Creek was by far the worst waterway that I’ve ever been in,” Swain told the Brooklyn Eagle. “I mean just layers of sewage and oil slick. … It was the most polluted and visibly polluted waterway that I’ve ever been in.”

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“Newtown Creek,” he added, “made the Gowanus seem charming.”

Both streams were designated by the Environmental Protection Agency as federal Superfund sites in 2010 — which offered a new hope for two waterways once lined with chemical, fuel and animal processing plants. But the 3.5-mile Newtown Creek gets forgotten, Swain said, as the Gowanus has become a hot spot for residential development.

As a result, Brooklynites interact with the Gowanus Canal every day and don’t like what they smell.

A used condom floats in Newtown Creek. Photo courtesy of Chris Swain

“Gowanus has low bridges,” said Swain, who subjects himself to used condoms, floating turds, oil patches and other toxins to raise ecological awareness to troubled waterways. “The canal goes right through the neighborhood and there are people that are crossing those bridges on foot and on bike every day.”  

Meanwhile, Newtown remains a working waterway set off from residential areas — and it’s still suffering from the notorious Greenpoint spill of 1978, which continues to leech fuel into the estuary.

Trash sits stagnant on one of Newtown Creek’s tributaries. Eagle file photo by Cody Brooks

No wonder Swain takes such extraordinary caution to protect himself during his swims. But even that wasn’t enough to save him when he swam Newtown Creek in December, 2015.

“My goggles leaked, and my left eye got really swollen,” Swain said. “I eventually got a sty on my eyelid … from the gas and oil on the water. You can still see it a little bit. Almost two years later, it’s almost gone.”

Many people think Newtown Creek is cleaner than the Gowanus — but with toxic waterways, looks can be deceiving, said Willis Elkins, program manager at Newtown Creek Alliance.

“The water may look clean at the surface … but deep down beneath there are still serious environmental hazards,” he said. “It is vital to have a thorough cleanup of these sediments, as well as reduction of sewage overflow, to improve conditions throughout the entire Newtown Creek.”

The Gowanus cleanup is expected to be completed by 2022, federal officials have said. Newtown Creek will remain disgusting well beyond that.

Follow reporter Scott Enman on Twitter.


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