Documentary Explores Why Passaic River is a ‘Victim,’ Not a ‘Monster’

“There is hope for this river, but it’s going to take time. The whole idea of doing something for future generations is really important,” says "American River" director Scott Morris.

Two kayakers paddle down the Passaic River.
Mary Bruno and Carl Alderson kayak the Passaic in the documentary "American River." Photo courtesy of Scott Morris Productions

Mary Bruno grew up in North Arlington, along the shores of the Passaic River. As a child, she was always told to stay away from the river. She wasn’t to touch the water, let alone swim in it. Later, when she became a biologist and moved away from Bergen County, she started to wonder about the river of her youth. Why couldn’t she go near it, and what had made this once pristine waterway into one of the most polluted bodies of water in the country?

The documentary American River tries to answer those questions. Based in part on Bruno’s 2012 book, An American River: From Paradise to Superfund, Afloat on New Jersey’s Passaic—which chronicles her kayak trip along the entire 80-mile length of the river—the film has Bruno recreate her four-day journey, this time for the cameras. The documentary highlights the river’s history, geology and ecology, talking to residents and environmental advocates along the way.

Director Scott Morris read Bruno’s book and thought the trip would make a fascinating documentary.

The Passaic River flows around valleys and a mountain range, drops over the Great Falls in Paterson, then passes through the most industrialized parts of the state, ending in Newark.

A view of the Passaic River with the Marcal Paper factory in Elmwood Park.

A view of the Passaic River, with the Marcal Paper factory in Elmwood Park, is pictured. Photo courtesy of Scott Morris Productions

Bruno agreed to come back so she could see what had changed since her last journey there 10 years earlier. She enlisted Carl Alderson to rejoin her, serving as her river guide and restoration ecologist. Alderson, a marine resources specialist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, knows the river well. For four days, they paddled downstream.

The Passaic River rises in the Great Swamp watershed in Mendham. There, it’s bucolic, surrounded by trees and beautiful scenery. But as Bruno and Alderson head downriver in the documentary and enter the more industrialized areas, they find it changes immensely; garbage litters the water, and the riverbanks are covered with concrete slabs.

“For all my life, I had thought of the Passaic as a monster. And I realized that it wasn’t a monster. The Passaic River was a victim,” Bruno says in the film. “I’m hopeful that humankind will recognize that rivers are important…rivers are essential. And we’ll stop treating them as garbage cans, as places where you can extract energy to make goods and make money.”

When the kayakers finally reach the lower Passaic River, there are large signs everywhere warning of the danger of eating fish or crabs caught in the water. This is where the river was contaminated with the Agent Orange chemical dioxin, dumped from a factory in Newark called Diamond Alkali. It turned the river into a Superfund site—the largest in the country —creating long-lasting environmental issues and health problems for those living nearby. It will cost $1.8 billion and take years to clean it.

“There is hope for this river, but it’s going to take time. The whole idea of doing something for future generations is really important,” says Morris.

“The film is primarily a journey. You’re not going to do anything about this river unless you care about it, and you’re not going to care until you know about it,” he adds. “Our film is an attempt to make you fall in love with the Passaic River by getting you on the water with Mary and Carl.”

See the film on March 31 at 7:30 pm at Mayo Performing Arts Center or April 1–10 at the Princeton Environmental Film Festival. Find more information on the film’s website.

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