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Environmental Activist Completes Gowanus Canal Swim In Attempt To Bring Awareness To Its Polluted Waters

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- Christopher Swain has set out to swim the length of the polluted Gowanus Canal before, but on Saturday, he finally succeeded at his mission.

Swain donned protective gear and jump into the canal in Brooklyn on Saturday. He made it the entire 1.8-mile length.

As CBS2's Ilana Gold reported, Swain was dressed in a dry suit and goggles, and was wearing protective skin cream.

The canal is currently a Superfund site, but Swain said it was worth it to make the swim.

"I'm willing to go in there to make that point -- to say it's OK to want things to be different; it's OK to put yourself on the line," Swain said.

Swain, 47, of Boston, made headlines back on Earth Day in April, when he also swam in the canal. But only made it part of the way. He had to abandon the previous swim due to storms.

He told WCBS 880 that this time, he felt like he had completed his mission.

"I feel like this was an undone thing from April. In April, I tried to swim the whole thing, but I had to stop because of thunderstorms," Swain said. "But it felt really good to swim the entire length of the canal finally, and to have that experience."

Swain has said the goal of his Gowanus Canal swims is to raise awareness about just how filthy the waterway is so it can one day be swimmable for everyone. But back in April, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warned him not to go through with it.

The water contains cancer-causing agents and bacteria, WCBS 880's Marla Diamond reported in April. Even venereal disease has been found at the bottom of the canal.

Swain on Saturday did concede that the canal water was not exactly pleasant.

"There's some floating trash. There was some brown scum. There's some foam from the emulsified oils and grease and stuff that's in the water. So it's pretty disgusting," he said. "And there's of course the different tastes – like you can taste metal, and you can taste gas, and you can taste detergents."

But Swain said conditions were far less unappealing than back in April, when rain had brought even more repulsive pollutants.

"It was different. Last time, it rained the day before, so it was much more a sensation of swimming through a dirty diaper. This time, it wasn't as much that. It was more a broader range of industrial and petroleum smells, because it hasn't rained in a while," Swain said. "So that was probably good – that means less sewage in there; fewer pathogens – you know, bacteria, viruses, protozoans – all the stuff that can make you sick."

Onlookers were amazed that Swain was up for the challenge.

"I think it's pretty crazy," said Max Kotsonis.

But Swain was sending the message that the water needs to get cleaned up fast so that one day, everyone can swim in it.

He also said he wanted to draw attention to what he believes is an insufficient cleanup effort by the EPA.

"The issue with the Gowanus is that the cleanup that's under way now – the EPA's leading – is only a partial cleanup. They're just going to scoop up the toxic mud at the bottom of the canal. But that won't necessarily leave the canal clean enough for swimming," he said. "In other words, you still need to protect the water, not just the mud at the bottom of the canal."

Accompanied by a safety team and research crew, Swain also documented the dirty conditions so he could bring his findings to local schools and teach students about it.

"They can get a sense of the canal and the problems they need solving, and they can get started problem solving," he said.

He said he believed his swim was a success.

"You know, when I see hundreds of people out there on the shore and on the bridges and stuff watching, and they're all smiling and cheering and stuff, I think, these are all people who like the idea of a Gowanus Canal that would be swimmable," Swain said. "They like the idea that you can take something that is arguably one of the dirtiest waterways in America and turn it into a jewel."

This latest swim will be Swain's last until the environmental cleanup is complete.

"I promised my friends at the 78th Precinct if I successfully finish this, they would never see me in the Gowanus Canal again," he said.

The EPA said federal teams have been cleaning up the site, but it could take a decade to finish the work.

Swain said his next swim will be in the Newtown Creek at the north end of Greenpoint, Brooklyn.

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