By Karen Zautyk
Plastic lawn chairs, propane tanks, wrought iron railings, pipes, dead shrubbery, pieces of street signs, and innumerable plastic shopping bags and plastic bottles — but no groundhogs.
The groundhogs who burrow along the banks of the Passaic River appear to have weathered the winter nicely.
“Sometimes, their dens flood and they get washed into the river,” Kearny High School teacher and girls’ varsity crew coach David Paszkiewicz told
us. But this year, no deceased critters.
We learned this detail about local fauna last Friday morning at the annual KHS-crew team’s Passaic River cleanup, during which the aforementioned detritus — and lots of other trash — were collected.
About 100 students, teachers, coaches and parents turned out for the effort, held from 10 a.m. to noon at the Kearny crew team boathouse on Passaic Ave. High school kids from Belleville and Nutley also lent a hand.
When the cleanup was over, the volunteers were expected to have filled a yard Dumpster, donated by Cali Carting, with 4 to 5 tons of debris collected from the riverbanks and the river itself.
On both sides of the Passaic, the volunteers were prowling the banks and raking up trash, then lugging it back in big garbage bags to the Dumpster. Those bags and rakes and the work gloves the kids wore were contributed by the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission, which sponsored the project.
Paszkiewicz, who supervised the cleanup, said that, in addition to those working on land, some of the students were also out in launches, “pulling stuff off the banks” and from the water up and down the river on both sides of the Montes de Oca (Rt. 7) Memorial Bridge.
Assisting Paskiewicz was Chris Brooks of the PVSC who, the coach noted, has been a regular at the yearly events, helping distribute the supplies, loading the Dumpster and even advising the kids on how to safely collect the trash. “Chris is our hero,” Paskiewicz said.
Kearny High School’s crew teams have been conducting these cleanups since 2009. The project was the idea of then-sophomore Fernanda Lois, who received a Governor’s Environmental Excellence Award in 2010.
In presenting the honor, the awards committee noted: “An avid rower, [Lois] regularly saw debris in the river and decided to do something about it. She enlisted the support of her rowing coach, organized her fellow crew members and, after finding a sponsor, was able to host a river cleanup event in April 2009. Volunteers filled a 20-cubic yard Dumpster past capacity with trash pulled out of the river and off the banks.
“Many in the community heard of the event and offered support, leading Lois to organize another cleanup in the spring of 2010. This time, she was able to expand the event by including the Belleville and Nutley rowing teams.”
Lois has since graduated, but the crew teams’ dedication to a cleaner Passaic continues.
Also at the cleanup this year were KHS English teacher Laurie Keim, crew team Booster Club officers Vicki Grimm and Paula Cavalier. “We have to exhibit some ‘ownership’ and pride in the river,” Grimm commented, explaining that for the rowers, “This is their home.”
Friday’s project was actually the second Passaic River cleanup held in town in one week. On Saturday, April 12, the township’s annual program, organized by Councilwoman Carol Jean Doyle, took place a couple of miles south, at the Frank Vincent Marina.
The town has been holding this event for 22 years, Doyle said. From 9:30 a.m. until noon, volunteers were collecting river trash from the muddy banks. Supporters of the town cleanup included Kearny Shop Rite, Passaic River Restoration, Kearny Optimists, Boy Scout Troop #302 and the Kearny Mayor and Council.
On April 11, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced a long-awaited plan to clean the lower 8 miles of the polluted Passaic, which includes the stretch that flows past Kearny. The project, with a price tag of $1.7 billion, was described as the most expensive public waterway cleanup in EPA history.
Exactly when the job would start, though, and how long it might take to complete are uncertain.
In the meantime, you can count on local high schoolers and other environmentally committed individuals to contribute their time and efforts doing whatever they can to clean and protect the river.
To our way of thinking, that’s worth more than $1.7 billion.