By Celeste Regal
Special to The Observer
Multimedia coordinator Chris Brooks kept a full auditorium of Kearny middle school students interested for an hour with dumping laws, fabulous clean-up vehicles and shots of key areas of interest for the Passaic Valley Sewage Commission (PVSC).
He said the school was “near and dear to his heart,” remembering many of the teachers there. During the heat of a longed-for sunny day, students asked about volunteering, keeping fish alive and fines for polluting the river.
The well-paced presentation covered the many hats worn by an employee of one of the country’s largest wastewater-management facilities whose outreach program includes grade-specific information that is much more than its key points suggest. It was a fun ride through what’s there, how it’s maintained and what the students can do to help out.
Many of the examples shown encouraged students to be better citizens and not litter.
One of the main points Brooks brought up was the vast amount of empty water bottles strewn across Kearny streets and parks. He said he could not understand why “bottles are all over the ground when a garbage can is a few feet away.”
He also talked about “refrigerators, washers and dryers,” dumped in the wooded areas, often unseen by residents. Students wanted to know the fine for such an act, but Brooks made a point to emphasize green behavior and to not deface the landscape.
Dumping tires is another way the river is polluted. PVSC employees take the tires, clean them and then recycle.
The Lower Passaic River is Coast Guard-navigable, meaning it’s 15 to 20 feet deep, according to Brooks. The river is 17 miles long with the deepest part where bridges cross and waters are traversed by various ships.
These 8.3 miles between Newark Bay and the Belleville/Newark border are the site of the latest U.S. Environmental Agency Protection’s program cleanup. In March, the EPA issued a proposal to dredge 3.5 million cubic yards of sediment.
Brooks, though, made the daily work of his organization seem an exciting undertaking to students who don’t often get to the river or know that once, people regularly swam in the Passaic River.
Despite the relevance of legislation, developing good stewardship is the focus of the PVSC outreach programs. The biggest hit of the day, beside volunteer shoreline clean ups, was the various removal vessels that scour the river and its tributaries.
The most active is a 50-foot skimmer vessel that can be seen along the river by anyone who parks near the Passaic River’s waterfront. The Marine Trash Skimmer makes daily rounds to remove floatable materials such as debris and driftwood.
The Hovercraft floats on air generated by an interior fan. It looks like a sea-going bumper car. Roosevelt students were curious as to how that worked. Brooks assured them it can get close to the shore to pick up debris and other garbage, even at the Great Falls National Park in Paterson, where the water is “one or two feet deep.”
The Great Falls power station is a hydroelectric-generating station located on the Passaic River in Paterson.
Great Falls, at 77 feet, is the second-largest waterfall east of the Mississippi River. Brooks talked about the large fish located in the falls that are protected when the power station regulates its activity. Hydropower uses water as its fuel to power the turbines that create electricity. Areas that fish inhabit are safe.
“We shut the waterfall off three times per year to do a shut-down,” he said. This allows PVSC staff to safely work in the falls. Water from Great Falls is redirected through the power plant. Often, that also allows cleanup by volunteers in the process. Outreach involves not only education but action.
The PVSC promotes the river’s recreational use as well as economic uses. Various canoe and kayaking programs are available throughout the year on the Passaic River through the Passaic River Rowing Association in Lyndhurst.
“Kayaking is very popular on the river,” he said. “Especially among the ladies.”
Brooks presented a large amount of information covering the many aspects of his organization. Students took it all in with encouraging attention. Coupled with lessons provided by Kearny schools teachers throughout the year on recycling, Earth Day and the like, a new generation is primed for stewardship, indeed.