Filth ebbs and flows on the Passaic River

“Things aren’t always as they seem.” I don’t know who first coined this phrase but in many instances it’s apt. It certainly rings true on the Passaic River, a place where a person can easily misread the waterway’s health based upon the time of their visit.

To wit: There are periods during the day that the Passaic River appears clean, and times that it looks like a cesspool. The difference between the two can be quite shocking.

Most everyone knows that the Passaic River has its problems. At various times, it has ranked amongst the most polluted rivers in America. Nasty chemicals like dioxin are embedded in its muck – insidious contributions from an unchecked industry that once ran roughshod over the region, using the river as its toilet.

But the Passaic River is supposed to be changing.

America’s “green” movement has ushered in protocols, laws and policies intended to clean up our waterways. These protective measures have never been more stringent, and the Passaic River was reportedly benefiting as a result.

If that’s true, it appears that our Passaic River never got the memo.

Many months back, as I was driving on River Road just north of the Belleville Turnpike, I saw a vile sight that reminded me of the focal point of a 1970s commercial where a Native American man tears up after witnessing a dying river.

Here, right before me, was a vast scene of floating filth. Plastic bottles, cups, plates, you name it, choked the river, for as far as my eyes could see. Not being an expert, I reckoned that the mess might have resulted from a recent storm. I’ve read that polluted tributaries and feeder creeks occasionally introduce such garbage into the Passaic. Was this an isolated incident?

I decided to keep an eye on the river to see if this was the case. Sadly, it wasn’t. In fact, seeing this mess seems like a 50/50 proposition; one day it will be there, the next it won’t.

I’ve noticed that the “plastic invasion” happens mostly during the morning hours. Later in the afternoon the crud forces mysteriously retreat. Tidal changes likely account for the timing element (the Passaic is tidal in nature from Newark Bay to Wallington), but this doesn’t hint at the origin of the filth.

If anyone knows anything definitive about this, I’d be interested in hearing from you.

Watching the Kearny rowing crew slicing through the water was a picture-postcard moment for me. It had me convinced that the Passaic River was on the mend. Is this true, or is my faith stream also polluted?

– Jeff Bahr

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