As inspiration and motivation for the launch of Testing Our Waters, professor and founder Barent Roth and students Aishwarya Janwadkar and Taina Guarda visited Brooklyn’s Dead Horse Bay on Barren Island, located east of Manhattan beach by the bridge that goes to the Rockaways. It is nicknamed as such because in the late 19th century horse rendering facilities were located here. It is also the site of an uncapped landfill dating back to 1953 when household belongings of poor people displaced by Robert Moses’ highway plans were dumped here.
We prepped ourselves for the field trip by watching an ABC News documentary piece called Dead Horse Bay: New York's Hidden Treasure Trove of Trash.
The ABC piece gives a brief history of Barren island and introduces the complicated nature trash can have: where one person sees historical artifacts that should be left alone, another collects the objects for artistic creation, and all the while toxins left from old batteries and decaying plastic continue to pollute the bay.
Given our concern with microplastics and ocean pollution, we were shocked by the amount of trash that is leaching harmful chemicals into the water. There is not just old trash, but what is likely newer trash as well.
The two barrels pictures above exhibit extensive fouling - when marine life attaches itself to objects. Fouling often has negative consequences. When marine life attaches itself to smaller pieces of plastic, the added weight can cause the debris to sink. Plastic left at the bottom of the ocean will last even longer than normal plastic because of the cold temperature and the lack of sunlight which usually degrades plastic into smaller and smaller pieces. In addition, fouling onto floating pieces can transfer organisms miles away from their natural habitat into areas where they can cause unchecked damage to local ecosystems.
Equally shocking was the amount of trash that may still end up in the waterways as the old landfill erodes because of rising seawater and strong storm events. Here are various views of the sand bar that is actually buried landfill.
In addition, there was foreshadowing of an unsustainable way of thinking.
Currently, this area is managed by the federal parks system which means that removing the trash for either artistic or cleanup purposes is illegal. We here at Testing Our Waters believe that the area needs to be cleaned because of the harm many of these objects pose to ocean water and marine life health as they degrade.
However, we can’t deny the fascinating quality there is to exploring these historical artifacts. Hopefully a solution can be found where the area is cleaned up but the artifacts are properly stored, with less harm to the environment, for future generations interested in the history of New York City.
Next up we begin our own attempts to mitigate ocean marine debris pollution. Stay tuned as we prototype DIY trawls, tweak their designs, release them to the public and create a mobile application to connect a community of citizen scientists concerned with the affect garbage is having on our beautiful oceans.