Passaic coalition hopes egrets will replace wastes

Heavily polluted river may be poised for a rebirth of nature in N.J.

August 18, 2002|By Andrew Jacobs | Andrew Jacobs,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEWARK, N.J. - Glimpsed from a commuter train or a passing car, the Passaic River looks like a dreary, coffee-stained channel marred by tumbledown factories, rotting piers and unidentified floating objects.

Up close, the Passaic is even less appealing.

An armada of plastic bottles bob on the surface. During low tide, the shoreline reveals a curious array of sofas, car parts and shopping carts trapped in a muck that smells as bad as it looks.

In some ways, it is even worse than it looks. That sediment, the color and consistency of Hershey's syrup, is a poisonous bisque of heavy metals and noxious chemicals left over from the hundreds of smelters, tanneries and refineries that once nourished former industrial giants like Paterson, Passaic and Newark. Signs posted along the shoreline promise a $3,000 fine to those who catch blue claw crabs and the prospect of cancer to those who eat them.

"When it comes to abused rivers, it doesn't get much worse than this," said Ella F. Filippone, executive director of the Passaic River Coalition, a group that has been working to save the 80-mile waterway since the late 1960s.

Centuries of industry

But after two centuries of degradation, the Passaic is tentatively poised for a recovery. With most offending industries gone and the water quality improving, shad and striped bass are running upstream, drawing leggy white egrets and great blue herons to the mudflats. Up and down the river, cities and suburban towns that used to treat the Passaic like a toilet are planning waterfront promenades and parks. Local crew clubs are rediscovering what was once considered the finest rowing river in the Northeast.

In a Herculean effort to bring back a semblance of the lower Passaic's ecosystem, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency are planning to remove tons of toxic sludge, dismantle ecologically damaging bulkheads and restore long-vanished wetlands along the river's most damaged portion in and around Newark. As the first joint project by the two federal agencies, the proposed Passaic River cleanup would serve as a model for despoiled urban rivers.

That, at least, is how it is supposed to work. Before the project can begin, an assortment of knotty issues must be resolved. There are competing visions of the river's future and the question of who should pay the hundreds of millions of dollars the salvage operation is expected to cost. Some fear that red tape and politics could stand in the way of a cleanup that has been considered for more than 20 years.

"When you have a complex set of issues like these, it's always easiest to kick the problem into someone else's political future," said Bradley M. Campbell, the state commissioner of environmental protection. "We can't let that happen."

In a sense there are two Passaic Rivers: the freshwater segment that loops through four suburban counties; and the urbanized portion south of the Dundee Dam in Garfield, which is tidal, brackish and thoroughly contaminated. At its headwaters in rural Morris County, the Passaic is a crystalline trout stream that burbles through some of the state's most affluent and environmentally conscious communities. But as it passes through the suburbs of Essex, Bergen and Passaic counties, the river is gradually fouled by sewage, oily runoff from streets and the chemicals that keep suburban lawns lush and pest-free. That same water is consumed by more than 3 million people daily.

Although the water is cleaned and chlorinated before it reaches residential taps, environmentalists say it is becoming increasingly compromised by fecal bacteria, algae blooms and elements found in household cleaning products. During droughts, like the one this spring, the water is almost entirely treated effluent, environmental officials say.

"Go out for a beer on Friday night and you can enjoy it in your coffee the next morning," said Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club in New Jersey. He and others warn that if sprawl is not kept in check, the entire Passaic watershed could become hopelessly contaminated. "It isn't alarmist to say that unless we take action, the Passaic could die," he said.

The last 17 miles

Yet it is the last 17 miles of the lower Passaic, from the Great Falls in Paterson to Newark Bay, where human intervention has been most devastating. Until the late 19th century, the river was famed for giant sturgeon, regattas, shoreline picnics and country mansions. But the Passaic also fed New Jersey's industrial revolution, powering textile mills and iron works and accommodating the toxic byproducts of progress.

Newspaper accounts from that time tell of mysterious nosebleeds and riverfront homes stripped of paint by the miasma of discharged acids. By 1910, when local officials described the river as "black from sewage and manufacturing waste," the boathouses, swim clubs and fishermen had long since disappeared.

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