Just imagine how easy polluting was over one century ago when the canal and creek hit their prime. Generations before Rachel Carson's groundbreaking book Silent Spring helped launch the environmental movement, before Earth Day and health food, vegetarianism and hybrids, there was no real regulation. People abused the land with abandon.
Businessmen in Brooklyn and Queens thought very little of dumping industrial waste, poisonous chemicals, garbage and who knows what else into the Gowanus and Newtown Creek - as if their actions had no consequences and these were alien bodies of water that nobody else would ever have to deal with.
Were these brilliant industrialists - the coal barons, oil magnates, the men who led this country into the 20th century - really so pathetically shortsighted? Or maybe - and this is even more terrifying - instead of being environmental morons, they knew exactly what they were doing. Wait a minute: Were they purposefully selling future generations down the oily creek?
Perhaps, in which case we should give as good as we got and pour 800 trillion gallons of paint thinner into the city's upstate water reservoirs, ha-ha-ha, and leave the question of clean drinking water to our hapless face-booking great-grandchildren.
Just kidding. No, most likely New Yorkers just didn't know any better back then, but now we do and that means we have the responsibility to act. The issue of how and when came into focus earlier this month when the EPA finally proposed placing the Gowanus Canal on its Superfund List. The move has drawn a heated response from opponents and supporters alike. This is a very good sign because if nothing else it proves people care.
Critics claim the Superfund program is under-funded, ineffective, and incapable of cleaning any site it tackles at less than a snail's speed. They have made it clear they believe the federal government should but out of their business and let the state and city clean the canal themselves.
Supporters of the Superfund listing, on the other hand, are ecstatic that the EPA decided to do something about the canal. EPA officials themselves, though cautious, believe if they don't do something, nobody ever will. If they are right, environmentalists in Brooklyn and across the creek in Queens should cross their fingers because the Superfund program has a dismal track record.
But at least they want to try, which is more than can be said for the state or the city. Every mayor since the canal started to smell has devised his own clean up plan, but the Gowanus still stinks. A Superfund listing is far from ideal, but its better than nothing.