Watch CBS News

Clean Water Activist Swims In Gowanus Canal For Earth Day

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- The phrase "different strokes for different folks" applied very much in Brooklyn this Earth Day.

As CBS2's Scott Rapoport reported, local activist Christopher Swain swam in the Gowanus Canal on Earth Day to call attention to what has been heralded as America's dirtiest waterway.

PHOTOS: Man Swims In Gowanus Canal

Swain intended to swim 1.8 miles from where Douglas Street dead-ends into the polluted canal and finish near the harbor. However, he only went a few blocks before police asked that he cut it short because of impending storms, WCBS 880's Marla Diamond reported.

He said he was swimming amidst the slime, sludge and toxic ooze in hopes that the poisonous waterway will one day be safe for everyone to swim in.

"It's time that we accelerate this cleanup," Swain said.

He began the swim with a kayaker at his side before a throng of onlookers – not all of whom had the goal of a cleaner canal on their minds.

Clean Water Activist Swims In Gowanus Canal For Earth Day

"I'm worried about him coming out with an extra arm or something, to be honest," said Tommy Walton of Bushwick, Brooklyn.

And the swim almost didn't happen at all. The owner of a property where Swain was set to start decided he no longer wanted him to use the land as a launch point, the NYPD said.

NYPD officers threatened to arrest Swain if he entered the waterway, Diamond reported. They were concerned about his safety and what his condition would be once he got out, saying he would need to be detoxified immediately.

But after a two-hour impasse Swain took the plunge around 2 p.m. in Carroll Gardens.

"The water was 50 degrees, and it tasted like mud, poop, ground-up grass, detergent, gasoline," Swain told reporters after emerging from the water.

He gargled with hydrogen peroxide and said he doesn't think he'll suffer any lasting effects from his cringe-inducing swim.

Just about everyone warned Swain not to do it, but the clean water advocate was determined from the start, CBS2's Diane Macedo reported.

The Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday urged him not to follow through, saying it's not even safe to touch the soil around the canal.

"I'll wear goggles. I will wear ear plugs. I will wear a cap. But beyond that, there will be exposed skin so I'll cover that with water barrier cream," he told CBS2 before the swim.

Even with the protection, Dr. Robert Glatter said it was a bad idea.

"This is one of the most dangerous moves I can consider. I think he should reconsider," he said.

Swain was joined in the canal by a long list of pollutants.

The water contains cancer-causing agents and bacteria. Even venereal disease has been found at the bottom of the canal, Diamond reported.

"It's everything from sewage, to oil and gas slicks, to coal tar residue bubbling up, and then if you look at the sludge at the bottom of the canal 10-20 feet of mud spiked with everything, every kind of toxic chemical and metal that we've been able to produce in the last 150 years 200 years," Swain said.

"People tell me I'm crazy, right? You know, they say, 'You're crazy for swimming the Gowanus Canal,'" he told WCBS 880's Peter Haskell before the swim. "And I say, 'You know what's crazy? What's crazy is how messed up this (canal) is.

Clean Water Activist Planning To Swim Length Of Gowanus Canal For Earth Day

"If it's crazy to want the Gowanus Canal to be a sparkling gem then, yeah, that's totally insane," Swain told CBS2.

Swain said the goal was to raise awareness about just how filthy the waterway is so it can one day be swimmable for everyone.

"I'm a little nervous because it is scary to get in there with all the pathogens, the bacteria, the viruses, the toxic chemicals and the heavy metals," Swain said before entering the canal.

Local residents agreed Swain should have reconsidered.

"It sounds disgusting. I wouldn't do it," said Hannah Lillevoy.

Red Hook resident Richard Rivera said in order for him to swim the Gowanus Canal, "They have to drain it, dig it out and then put clean water in."

"I just say good luck to him. I know it's filthy," said Aysgel Santos, of Boerum Hill. "My son went on a trip last year. He was amazed at how dirty it is, and when you pass by, it smells."

Clean Water Activist Swims In Gowanus Canal For Earth Day

Having braved the Hudson River already, Swain said he knew firsthand how quickly things can change.

"The Hudson's mostly cleaned up now. It's nothing like the river that we had in the '60s and '70s, and I'm saying the same thing could happen right here," Swain said. "What I'm imagining is not so much what this one swim will do, but I'm imagining the dream of the Gowanus Canal that is glittering in the sun that is completely clean."

Federal teams are already at work cleaning up the Superfund site, though they currently estimate it will take more than a decade to finish.

And following the swim, Swain even said he would do it again.

"I'll be back," he said. "I'm going to swim the whole thing."

Swain said he was the first person ever to swim the Gowanus Canal, and he said he would come up with a mutually agreeable day with New York City officials before trying again.

EMERGENCY COMPONENT - LOCAL

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.