The Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission wages war on filth
By Ron Leir
The numbers tell the story. Since 2000, when the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission (PRSC) instituted a policy of patrolling the waterway for debris, the agency has removed more than 9,000 tons of materials from the river and its banks.
To get some perspective around that figure, it’s like saying the equivalent of 9,000 Clydesdale horses were extracted or more than 1,000 elephants or 225 semis with trailers.
In other words, it’s a lot of stuff that’s clogged the river – or at least, the southern end – and part of that can be blamed on uncaring polluters. But Nature has a hand in it, too.
The PVSC is doing what it can to stem the tide of trash and fallen tree trunks through a daily regimen of sending out two skimmers along different parts of the river.
Brian Davenport, who manages the PVSC’s River Restoration Program with a crew of 14 and a $1.5 million budget, explains that a skimmer is a pontoon boat with a stainless steel mesh conveyor which hangs below the water line and strains out floating material. The PVSC runs two such vessels, one 50 footer and the other 32 feet. The larger boat can handle up to 12,000 lbs. and the smaller – with a very narrow cargo space – has a capacity of 1,500 lbs.
“We’re looking to get a second 50-footer,” Davenport said. But that’s contingent on the PVSC finding the funding to acquire one. Today’s stateof- the-art skimmer is priced at close to $900,000, he said.
Typically, the skimmers scoop up relatively small items, like bottles, cans, plastics, weeds, leaves, sticks, footballs and soccer balls; but then, there are also more exotic finds.
Bowling balls, for example. Yup, seems that there’s a lot of cork inside that can keep it buoyant.
There are also four-wheelers, junk cars, railroad ties, derelict boats and empty 55-gallon oil drums.
Animals, like skunks and raccoons, turn up, along with the “occasional person,” according to Davenport.
“We found two people this year,” he said.
Storms, like last year’s Hurricane Irene, swept everything from shoreline residents’ picnic tables to 70- to 80-foot trees into the water and those downed trunks can pose big navigational problems, especially around the Second (or Watsessing) River and Third (or Yantecaw) River, tributaries to the Passaic.
“Lying in the river, they create dams and block the flow of the river so during rainstorms, everyone upstream of the dam gets flooded,” Davenport said. Typically, that means residential areas bordering tree-lined riverfronts in Belleville, Nutley and Bloomfield.
Kearny resident Christopher Brooks, multimedia program coordinator assigned to the River Restoration unit, recalled instances where, “You could walk across sections of the river without getting your feet wet,” because of the amount of debris that had simply overwhelmed the flow.
One such jam-up in Paterson, for example, was relieved after skimmer crews pulled 1,760 tires from a 500-foot to 700-foot stretch of the river during a two-and-a-halfmonth- long interval, Davenport recalled.
The skimmers and their crews are dispatched to chop up and “de-snag” those obstacles.
After a boat has hauled in its “catch” for the day, it heads for a floating dock at 403 River Road in North Arlington where it offloads its “collectables.” Whatever materials can’t be recycled gets shipped to a licensed landfill at the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission.
Stuff continues to find its way into the river – a contractor will drive his pickup truck into the woods and dump his debris on the riverbank – but the PVSC relies on local or county officials from the 48 communities in its district to be on the watch for illegal dumping activity, since the commission has no regulatory authority, Davenport said.
But, with local public works personnel usually busy handling inland assignments, at least the PVSC can offer some relief to river logjams then they occur.
“We fought the fight nobody was fighting,” is the way Brooks sees the situation.
There’s the lingering issue of the river’s toxin-laden sediment – a by-product of industrial waste from decades ago – which state and federal environmental agencies, in cooperation with the “responsible parties,” are tackling with dredging in Newark and plans for removing contaminants from Lyndhurst mudflats.
But because those chemicals are believed to have settled beneath the bottom of the river, Davenport said he’s unaware of any health issues that could pose hazards to Kearny, Nutley and Belleville high school crew teams who ply the river in their crafts.
In fact, Brooks said, in recent years, “there’s been an explosion of boating” all along the Passaic – a trend that he and Davenport attribute to the PVSC’s aggressively enviro-friendly approach to the river.
“You’ve got some 300 members who row out of the Nereid Boat Club in Rutherford and another 300 from the Passaic River Rowing Association out of the Lyndhurst boathouse,” he said, “not to mention the several hundred high school kids who crew in the springtime.”
“Ten years ago,” Davenport added, “you never saw canoes or kayaks on the river. Now you do.”
Plus, Brooks said, “you see guys fishing constantly.” The state has a “catch-and-release” regulation in force but Brooks says that hasn’t deterred anglers from casting their lines for the likes of striped and smallmouth bass, pike and muskies. “But you have to throw them back,” he notes.
But Brooks, who began documenting river restoration work via photography and videography in 1998, is especially proud of the PVSC’s efforts to foster river environment awareness among kids of all ages through its education program, which was developed in 2003.
“We go into schools and we see about 30,000 kids a year throughout the district,” he said. “We have separate handson projects for kids in K to grade two, third to fifth grade, sixth to eighth grade and high school. We speak about how trash tossed into the street ends up in the sewer and affects our water.”
Various communities throughout the Passaic River district try to contain objects from flowing into the river by attaching collection nets to sewer outfall points along the river but “you get a huge rain event for five to six hours, it’ll blow. Those nets can only hold so much,” Brooks said. “Particularly after a dry spell,” Davenport added. “You get a good rain to flush everything out and that’s when you get hit.”
But Brooks believes that by hammering these points home to kids, the up and coming generation of adults will be less likely to chuck a plastic water bottle or aluminum soda can into the gutter.
“We’ve won 28 national awards with our school programs,” he said.
The PVSC also sponsors waterfront cleanups, like one held recently in Kearny where members of the girls crew team joined forces with the Lincoln School Enviro Club to scoop up trash along the Riverside County Park shoreline, using gloves, rakes, garbage bags and a 30-yard Dumpster furnished by the PVSC.
Brooks credits former Kearny High School crew team member Fernanda Lois with having spearheaded several local riverfront cleanups after tiring of seeing trash in the river. In 2010 the KHS senior won the Governor’s Excellence Award for environmental stewardship.
And Brooks also does outreach work with local organizations like Rotary and the Optimists, and even some local industries like Panasonic, which is relocating its operations to Newark and Harrison. “They’re interested in ‘adopting’ part of the river,” Brooks said. “That’s cool stuff.”