The New York Times
August 17, 2008
A Flash of Hope for a Tainted River
AFLOAT Paul Lerin, 41, of Newark, paddling along the Passaic. He considers himself its unofficial
Nancy Wegard for The New York Times
AL FRESCO Harvey and Debbie Morginstin, members of the Passaic River Boat Club, picnic at water’s
edge in Kearny.
THE tide was rising and the sun sinking in the sky as members of the Passaic River Boat
Club gathered here for Cruise Night one muggy evening last month, opposite the
northern tip of Newark.
Though several had their boats on trailers on the river’s banks, everyone understood
there would be no cruise. To cruise, one must have access to a river, and the dilapidated
ramp where they staged the event was not fit for man or boat. Members of the club were
undeterred. Their goal was to rebuild the launch and return recreational boating to the
neglected and polluted lower Passaic.
“You are now witnessing history. The river’s coming back,” said the club’s president, Ed
Marchese, a 55-year-old electrical engineer and resident of nearby Clifton. He looked
toward his parked boat, the Steamboat Willie, a 21-foot mini-tug. “Wouldn’t it be nice to
hook up the trailer to my pickup and, in 15 minutes, be able to head out to Newark Bay?”
For once, the vision did not seem far-fetched. Weeks earlier, not far from here, the
United States Environmental Protection Agency had called a press conference to
announce that the Passaic’s most toxic hot spot would be cleaned up. “We owe it to the
people who live and work in New Jersey to return this river to the jewel it once was,”
said Alan J. Steinberg, the E.P.A.’s regional administrator.
It was stunning news: Cleanup of the river had been stalled by a bureaucratic and legal
logjam lasting 25 years. The agency discovered dioxin, a cancer-causing chemical, under
the river in Newark in 1982; Gov. Thomas H. Kean declared a state of emergency and
banned consumption of the river’s fish and crabs in 1983; and the E.P.A. put the site on
its Superfund National Priorities List in 1984.
Environmentalists and others welcomed the news, but said much remained to be done.
Under an agreement between the E.P.A. and Occidental Chemical Corporation,
Occidental will spend $80 million to clean a stretch of waterfront owned by its
predecessor, the Diamond Alkali Company, with work scheduled to begin this summer.
From 1951 to 1969, Diamond Alkali manufactured herbicides here, including Agent
Orange, the defoliant used by the United States in Vietnam. But the agreement does not
address the future of the lower river’s remaining 16-plus miles or Newark Bay, also part
of the Superfund site. Federal officials say they need to do further study.
“This is Step 1, but there are 100 more to go, and meanwhile more of that dioxin is
getting into the environment and into us,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club’s
New Jersey chapter.
From its headwaters in Morris County to the Newark Bay, where it empties, the Passaic,
at about 80 miles, is New Jersey’s longest river. It meanders all over North Jersey,
looping over the Great Falls in Paterson and flowing south past Rutherford, Lyndhurst,
Nutley, Belleville, North Arlington, Kearny and Harrison. Seen on a map as it
approaches downtown Newark, the river suddenly goes up, then down, like a roller
coaster, before joining the Hackensack River at the northern end of Newark Bay.
Thousands of people drive or ride by it every day, but the river is elusive. From a
commuter train or speeding car, the Passaic has a forlorn, even forbidding look: brown,
torpid, full of floating objects, and rimmed by deserted factories and warehouses. More
than half the shoreline of the lower river consists of bulkhead.
The Passaic is also hard to get to. In Essex County, construction of Route 21 during the
1950s all but obliterated access to the western bank. The opposite shore, in southern
Bergen County, is lined with a string of parks. But benches face away from the river, and
bushes obscure the view.
Still, that section of the Passaic is increasingly popular with rowers. Seven high schools
and two clubs call it home, and there are annual regattas. (Last fall’s was canceled
because of debris floating on the river, including logs, tires and a mattress.)
Despite such hazards, the river “is not without its charm,” said Paul Lerin, 41, an
occasional paddler who uses a kayak because it launches more easily than a motor boat.
The Newark resident, who runs a marine business in Staten Island, considers himself
the Passaic’s unofficial riverkeeper. In reality, it has none.
“Some days are better than others,” he said. “After a rainfall, you generally don’t want to
be out there.” When it rains, combined sewer overflows spill into the river.
Others have ventured out on the Passaic and blogged about it. In 2000, Steve Garufi, a
native of Fairfield, put his kayak in at Basking Ridge and paddled off toward Newark on
the navigable sections of the river.
“I broke through all my considerations, ignored my lame excuses, and rejected the New
Jersey attitude that claims the river is ugly, polluted and dangerous,” he wrote.
In downtown Newark, the Passaic is at its drabbest. There is a community of homeless
people living under the Jackson Street Bridge, in the city’s Ironbound section. Nearby is
Riverbank Park, which is actually walled off from the river by a busy highway.
Past that point, the Passaic is a virtually deserted body of water, a spot where almost no
one comes, said Robert DeVita, a manager at the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission.
It has a wastewater treatment plant close by and operates a river restoration program,
using boats that remove trash.
The former Diamond Alkali plant, also known as Diamond Shamrock, is located 3.5
miles upstream from Newark Bay, covered with cement and topped by potted trees.
E.P.A. officials say that it has ceased contaminating the river, but that the sediments it
left behind are continually being dispersed by the tides.
Occidental has agreed to cart away 40,000 cubic yards of the most toxic muck. Another
160,000 cubic yards will be removed and capped at the site.
In an interview, Mr. Steinberg, the E.P.A.’s regional administrator, called the cleanup a
“first and giant step.” He defended the agency’s continuing study of the remaining
pollution. (The E.P.A. reached agreement with 73 “potentially responsible” companies,
including Occidental, to pay for the pollution study in 2007.)
“When you’re going to have a remedy, you better darn well make sure it will be a
permanent solution,” Mr. Steinberg said. “We have to prove that our remedy will remain
protective. Obviously, they’re going to challenge us, not only legally but scientifically.
That’s why we’re cautiously proceeding here.”
In 2005, frustrated by the E.P.A.’s pace, the State Department of Environmental
Protection sued Occidental to force a cleanup. The case is pending.
In Kearny, members of the Passaic River Boat Club socialized and discussed club
business. Frank Russo, a 43-year-old engineer from Nutley, has formulated technical
drawings for a ramp renovation and hopes a state grant will pay for it.
Paul Bouscaren, 45, a computer programmer from Budd Lake, could not resist trying to
get his boat out on the water. “I used to work right over there, in Newark,” he said. “I
would always look out at the river and think what fun it would be to get out there
Mr. Bouscaren backed his 17-footer down the ramp, but soon gave up. The ramp was not
steep enough or long enough.
The goings-on attracted the attention of an onlooker, Roger Reed. Mr. Reed lives 100
yards from the river, near the Stickel Bridge between Harrison and Newark. Over the
years he has heard tales from his wife’s grandmother about the way the Passaic used to
be. He approached the group tentatively and asked about joining.
“You don’t see many boats today, yet it’s a beautiful river,” he said. “How often do you
do this? Can people join? Do you have to have a boat?”