Backyard Talk

Toxic Flipper Dies

A polluted dolphin in Brooklyn was “killed by government incompetence,” wrote Andrea Peyser’s in her New York Post article, January 28, 2013.

“It broke the heart of the hardest New Yorker. Even mine. Just one living soul in this city was slain during the nine days ending Friday, during a bone-chilling cold snap that kept the guns still. The Gowanus Canal Dolphin. The marine mammal was a victim of another kind of homicide. The dolphin was killed by acute bureaucratic neglect and incompetence. There was no saving the poor, lost soul. Rest in peace.

The species is called the common dolphin. But there was nothing common about this gentle creature. The 6-foot miracle floated Friday morning to a spot near Union Street, in the revolting and polluted Brooklyn canal. It’s a 1.8-mile garbage dump stretching from Gowanus Bay to New York Harbor.

Like a long, filthy puddle, the canal is strewn with more than a century’s worth of foulness. Old tires, used syringes, grocery carts.

Pesticides. Metals. Cancer-causing PCBs. The Gowanus has long been bestowed with the reputation of being the spot where the mob disposes of bodies, which are meant to virtually dissolve in the putrid water.

In the late ’90s, a photographer I know found a corpse floating in the murky canal. Cops told him the dead man was probably killed by a prostitute. Nothing to see here.

And yet the rancid waterway sits between the multimillion-dollar houses of star-choked Park Slope (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Patrick Stewart) and fame-friendly Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens and Boerum Hill (Norah Jones, Michelle Williams). How authorities could allow the Gowanus to exist in its rank condition for a day, let alone 100-plus years, is a made-in-New York mystery. (The thing was built in the mid-19th century, and deteriorated as quickly as people could invent chemicals to dump.)

Maybe the dolphin, sick or hurt, sensed he was in friendly company. No one knows where the animal came from. The age is unknown. The beast was male, said biologists.

A crowd formed for hours as the dolphin, its dorsal fin bleeding, swam in circles, gasping for air. Clinging to life. I’m not what you would call an animal person. But the mesmerizing sight of the dolphin swimming in a nasty realm not known to support amoebas, let alone a magnificent creature, gave me hope.

Rescue workers arrived. People prayed. Shortly after 5 p.m., a lone man stepped into the ice-cold water, risking infection or disease. He stroked the dolphin, gently. The animal seemed to like it. The man did what rescue workers would not.

Police and experts from the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research decided against going in the cesspool of a canal. They waited instead for the tide to rise at about 7 p.m., allowing the animal to swim to safety without stressing out, or grossing out, workers.

“We’re concerned about the animal, but we’re concerned about our safety first,” biologist Julika Wocial told The Post. By 5:30 p.m., the dolphin stopped moving. Just after 6, Wocial said, it had breathed its last.

Yesterday, biologists planned to conduct a necropsy, or animal autopsy, to find out what happened Could the tragedy have been prevented? Maybe not. It took decade upon decade of dumping, paired with official sloth, to make the canal unsafe for rescue workers to enter. The animal was doomed from the start.

In 2010, the federal government declared the canal a Superfund site, angering Mayor Bloomberg, who wanted the city to clean it up. But nearly three years after the feds took over, nothing.

Just this week, the government got around to holding public hearings about cleaning up the canal, over 10 to 12 years, at a cost to taxpayers of $504 million.

What took so long? As the morons blathered, a dolphin died. Rest in peace, big guy. Sadly, you won’t be the last creature to suffer.”

Backyard Talk

Toxic Vapor Health Problems

A new study links congenital heart problems, low birth weight and other birth defects to soil toxic vapors from industrial contaminants that have lurked in the groundwater beneath Endicott in upstate New York. The NYS State Department of Health found infants born to mothers living in a 70-block area, south of the former IBM manufacturing facility, had health problems at higher rates than those born in the rest of the state.

The area is contaminated with trichloroethylene (TCE) and tetrachloroethylene (PCE), two industrial solvents that have been connected to health problems, including cancer. Although the dangers of TCE and PCE have been relatively well-documented, most research has focused on exposure through drinking water — which is not believed to be a problem in Endicott. “This is the first that we know of that involves the soil vapor intrusion pathway,” said Department of Health research scientist Steven Forand, who co-authored the study looking at people impacted by the Endicott plume between 1978 and 2002.  For more information, contact NYS DOH at 518-474-4394.