Rebirth o the Passaic River: Part 1

Photo by Jeff Bahr
The Passaic River plunges 70 feet at the Great Falls in Paterson. It’s one of New Jersey’s most treasured scenic wonders.


By Jeff Bahr

Observer Contributor

A river man comes forth In a recent opinion piece (Filth ebbs and flows on the Passaic River – Sept. 5) I talked about the Passaic River and its questionable health. As a layperson, I based my opinion purely on what my eyes told me – and what they were saying wasn’t good. Before signing off, I invited those with greater knowledge of the river and its problems to contact me. Surely someone would know why vast flotillas of floating garbage stage regular appearances on the river.

A few days after the article went to print, Chris Brooks of the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission called The Observer with an intriguing offer. He said that he and his colleagues, whose job it is to keep the waterway clean, would be happy to take me for a ride on a trash skimming boat to show me the obstacles that they’re up against and the measures that they’ve taken in response to them. He also that I’d receive a better education about the river itself. Quicker than you can say “free boat ride” I signed on for the tour.

River of extremes

The Passaic River begins as a trickle at Mendham and flows for some 90 miles over a convoluted course before it finally empties into Newark Bay. Along its tortured, circuitous route, the surrounding scenery varies from pastoral to starkly urban. It’s almost as if there are two Passaic Rivers: the pretty one that flows mostly west of the Great Falls (a scenic wonder in its own right) and the less than beautiful (charitably speaking) industrial-rich stretch that flows south toward Newark.

Relative to this diversity the river is viewed as a gift by some and a downright curse by others. In fact, many homeowners who live in Lyndhurst, Wayne, Lincoln Park and other flood-prone communities detest the river and have openly cursed it. You can hardly blame them. Some of these people have been forced out of their homes for days and weeks on end when the river overflowed its banks. This was followed by a demoralizing return to waterlogged and mudcaked houses all but destroyed during the event. Since these homes are situated on a flood plain, critics argue that they should never have been built in the first place. Nevertheless, they were.

In other less floodprone areas the river can be idyllic in nature. A walk along its banks in these spots (particularly the river’s starting point in Mendham) can be restorative and tranquil. In a nutshell, the good, the bad and the ugly sum up the scenery and conditions to be found along the Passaic River.

On my cruise with the experts, I’d be traveling along the river’s lower reaches – an urban stretch chock-a-bloc with industrial remnants where the riverbed is known to contain a toxic stew of deadly chemicals in its sediment. This is the very same region where I’d spotted trash floating on the surface as far as the eye could see – a double-whammy of filth you might say.

A dirty shame

It’s important to understand just how daunting any sort of cleanup is on the Passaic River – and how very stacked the odds of restoring the waterway to a pristine state really are. In popular culture the Passaic River has become something of a laughing stock over the years. Comedians Bud Abbott and Lou Costello famously goofed on it in days past, and derogatory references about the river were often made on the hit TV show “The Sopranos.” It seems everyone has a joke to tell about the waterway, but the trouble is many of us are no longer laughing. When a river assaults the eyes, nose, and potential health of those who must co-exist with it, such jokes become polluted over time.

The river’s pollution problem traces to a pre-regulation industrial era that saw Paterson, Newark and other municipalities dumping their untreated waste into the river with impunity. At the time not much was known about the long-term environmental effects of a severely polluted waterway. But even if regulators were cognizant of these hazards, it’s doubtful that the practice would have been curtailed. America’s continued progress depended upon the swift production of goods, and the making of those goods depended on the use of chemicals to one extent or another. So what if some water was tainted during the production process? It was, after all, for the good of the country.

Well, yes and no. Sure, products along the Passaic River corridor were churned out at a rate that made other countries green with envy helping to turn the U.S.A. into an economic powerhouse, but people also lived beside what was fast becoming a toilet teeming with deadly chemicals. As you might imagine the river’s ecosystem has also been affected by the toxic stew. Species that once thrived along the river and its basin have largely disappeared. When and if they’ll stage a full comeback is anyone’s guess.

Next Week: Rebirth of the Passaic River Part 2 – The Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission wages war on river filth.

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