Hoping Egrets Replace Pollutants as Passaic River Undergoes Intensive Care

Newark – Glimpsed from a commuter train or a passing car, the Passaic River looks like a dreary, coffee-stained channel marred by tumbledown factories, rotting piers and unidentified floating objects.

Up close, the Passaic is even less appealing.

An armada of plastic bottles bobs on the surface. During low tide, the shoreline reveals a curious array of sofas, car parts and shopping carts trapped in a muck that smells as bad as it looks.

In some ways, it is even worse than it looks. That sediment, the color and consistency of Hershey’s syrup, is a poisonous bisque of heavy metals and noxious chemicals left over from the hundreds of smelters, tanneries and refineries that once nourished formal industrial giants like Paterson, Passaic and Newark. Signs posted along the shoreline promise a $3,000 fine to those who catch blue crabs and the prospect of cancer to those who eat them.

“When it comes to abused rivers, it doesn’t get much worse than this,” said Ella F. Filippone, executive director of the Passaic River Coalition, a group that has been working to save the 80-mile waterway since the late 1960s.

But after two centuries of degradation, the Passaic is tentatively poised for a second coming. With most offending industries gone and the water quality improving, shad and striped bass are running upstream, drawing leggy white egrets and great blue herons to the mudflats. Up and down the river, cities and suburban towns that used to treat Passaic like a toilet are planning waterfront promenades and parks. Local crew clubs are rediscovering what was once considered the finest rowing river in the Northeast.

In a Herculean effort to bring back a semblance of the lower Passaic’s ecosystem, the United States Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency are planning to remove tons of toxic sludge, dismantle ecologically damaging bulkheads and restore long-vanished wetlands along the river’s most damaged portion in and around Newark. As the first joint project by the two federal agencies, the proposed Passaic River cleanup would serve as a model for despoiled urban rivers across the country.

In a sense there are two Passaic Rivers, the freshwater segment that loops – and regularly floods – through four suburban counties, and the urbanized portion south of the Dundee Dam in Garfield, which is tidal, brackish and thoroughly contaminated. At its headquarters in rural Morris County, the Passaic is a crystalline trout stream that burbles through some of the state’s most affluent and environmentally conscious communities. But as it passes through the densely built suburbs of Essex, Bergen and Passaic Counties, the river is gradually fouled by treated sewage effluent, oily runoff from streets and the chemicals that keep suburban lawns lush and pest-free. That same water is consumed by more than three million people daily.

Yet it is the last 17 miles of the lower Passaic, from the Great Falls in Paterson to Newark Bay, where human intervention has been most devastating. Until the late 19th century, the river was famed for giant sturgeon, regattas, shoreline picnics and country mansions. But the Passaic also fed New Jersey’s industrial revolution, powering textile mills and iron works and accommodating the toxic byproducts of progress. Newspaper accounts from the time tell of mysterious nosebleeds and riverfront homes stripped of paint by the miasma of discharged acids. By 1910, when local officials described the river as “black from sewage and manufacturing waste,” the boat houses, swim clubs and fishermen had long since disappeared.

Although the Clean Water Act of 1972 vastly reduced the deluge of pollutants, some of the 60 sewage treatment centers along the river still release millions of gallons of untreated waste during heavy rains. More troubling is the six miles of river bottom around Newark that is heavily infused with dioxin, the poisonous byproduct of the defoliant Agent Orange, which was manufactured here by Diamond Alkali until 1969. Although the source of contamination has since been sealed under a mound of cement and gravel, researchers have found the dioxin as far out as the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor.

Still, officials say that if a cleanup is adequately financed, it is possible to remove most of the contaminants and restore plant and aquatic life to the river’s lower reaches.

“It may be hard to believe, but our goal is to make the Passaic swimmable, fishable and drinkable again,” said George Pavlou, director of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund program in New York and New Jersey.

There are already encouraging signs of renewal. Throughout the river’s flood-prone midsection, the federal government is planning to buy more than 5,000 acres of wetlands that might otherwise yield more development, and more tainted runoff. In downtown Newark, the Army Corps is halfway through construction of a two-mile waterfront promenade. And in nearby Kearny and Rutherford, fleets of sculls glide through a river that despite the filth is prized for its placid surfaces and lack of motorized boat traffic.

The only downside is the ubiquitous debris that can capsize sculls or puncture their delicate hulls. The Passaic Valley Sewage Commission recently bought a TrashCat™ skimmer boat from United Marine International [see picture below] that has helped cut down on the refuse. But until the agency undertakes a multimillion-dollar upgrade of the plant capacity, garbage and untreated sewage will continue to enter the river with the rain.

UMI's smallest Model #MS8-1500A TrashCat™ & largest model #MS16-12000B

Foreground: UMI’s smallest Model #MS8-1500A TrashCat™ owned by PVSC, skimming floating trash in the Passaic River, New Jersey.
Background: UMI’s largest model #MS16-12000B

Excerpted from The New York Times – on the web