Blacklist Week - Diving for Dirty Water


By Lisa Autz

Photo courtesy of Christopher Swain.

It’s popular to run races or swim waterways to raise awareness for a remote cause. However, few take a plunge straight into the issue at hand.

Christopher Swain is one of those rare direct activists. He has taken hazardous dives into America’s dirtiest waterways in the name of cleaner water since 1996.

On Earth Day, Apr 22, he swam in the murky, sludgy, and oily waters of the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, NY. In a body-length dry suit, goggles, swim cap, and earplugs, Swain intended to stroke 1.8 miles in the water laden with carcinogens, cancer-causing compounds, and raw sewage.

The daring swimmer only made it a few blocks into the canal until police officials asked him to cut out early due to an impending storm.

Swain spoke with BreakThru Radio about one of the filthiest swims he has ever taken in his life and his hope to encourage cleaner waterways everywhere.

BreakThru Radio (BTR): So recently you have taken up the obstacle of swimming the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, NY. Why were you drawn to swim that waterway specifically?

Christopher Swain (CS): I was thinking about the United Nations‘ World Water Decade from 2005 to 2015 and I was at the UN right as it was wrapping up… if you stand on the terrace there looking out over the East River it’s a beautiful view.

But one of the things that occurs to you–if you are a water guy–is that you can see two of the dirtiest waterways in the country. You can see Newtown Creek and you can see the Gowanus Canal–well you can’t see it but you know it’s right down there around the corner. So I thought, for all this talk that we do saying, “Oh if you want a really dirty waterway you have to go to Asia, or Eastern Europe, or Africa,” and they’ve got some bad stuff, sure.

Photo courtesy of Christopher Swain.

[Meanwhile] in North America, there is some really troubling [water pollution] that we haven’t got around to cleaning up yet.

So instead of just calling out, I wanted to do what I do. I’m a swimmer and I wanted to get in there and have an experience of it and let people know that it’s worth pushing for better and cleaner water.

Let’s not just speed up the clean up–but let’s put it back into human terms. What if we think clean is safe to swim in every day? That’s something you can understand without a science degree, right?

BTR: So what are some of the most hazardous toxins in the water?

CS: It’s sometimes easier to think of it in two layers: there’s the water column and then there’s the muck in the bottom.

The muck at the bottom–they call it black mayonnaise because that’s the consistency of it–is a 10- to 20-foot layer of toxic muck with everything that we ever dumped into this industrial waterway over the last three hundred years or so [such as] arsenic and mercury and coal tar residue.

The EPA plans to take 600,000 cubic yards of that out over the next 20 years and because of all the coal tar residue, some of that is so flammable that they are actually going to be able to burn it for energy.

Then there’s the water itself. So why is the water dirty? The big reason is just a plumbing issue.

Many of these older cities, whether it’s Boston, or New York, or Newark, [have] pipes [that] went in before we had a sense of where we hoped to be as a nation around the environment and around water.

It was normal to send your sewage straight into the waterways, that’s what everyone did. So you can imagine there are all these pipes under New York City that go straight to the waterways and when it rains water goes down the storm drain system. So every time you have a big rainstorm event in any of our big cities [that causes] raw sewage in the waterways.

Also there’s oil and gas on the surface. There’s foam that looks like sea foam but really it’s emulsified fats and grease from the storm drain system and from restaurants.

BTR: Wow, that’s some pretty gross stuff. How did you prepare for swimming in those toxins?

CS: My plan was thinking about, how can I limit my exposure in every possible way?

The first thing that I decided to do was to try and come up with a strategy where I get almost no water on my body at all. Second thing I did was not to put my head under. Another piece of it was to pick my day so that I don’t end up in there with sewage.

Photo courtesy of Konstantin Sergeyev.

It hadn’t rained in a couple of days when I swam so I avoided a lot of oil and gas slicks and we coordinated with the city so they moved some of the foamy emulsified grease.

I wore a dry suit designed to keep water off the body through a system of seals. I sealed the wrists, feet, neck, and there are watertight zippers. Then on my head I wore a swim cap, goggles, earplugs. I put non-petroleum water barrier cream all over everything else.

So that just left my mouth exposed. If I got water in my mouth then I would gargle with hydrogen peroxide solution, that’ll kill bacteria viruses and protozoans. If I swallowed water then we approached it like poison, I would take activated charcoal packets, which would bind with all kinds of toxins in the body.

BTR: What did you hope to do with this selfless act and how can we collectively help expedite the clean up process for our waters?

CS: Culturally, nothing changes unless someone is willing to put their ass on the line.

I think if you are serious about making a change and it’s connected to something that you believe in then it might be worth considering putting yourself directly in it, putting yourself on the line. I also think there is a credibility piece there, no one is going to welcome thoughts from just anyone on the Gowanus Canal. However, if you are willing to swim in the Gowanus Canal people are willing to hear what that experience is like so it creates a bit of a platform there.

What I was hoping with the swim was to shine a light, introduce more people to the canal and hopefully have the canal make more friends, and then hopefully there’s a larger group of people [who want to] make it safer to swim every day.