Reviving the Passaic

Branded by the EPA in 1970 as the second most polluted river in the U.S., the Passaic is on the mend, but much of the hardest work remains.

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For much of the last half century, the Passaic River has been written off as a flood-prone nuisance, a malodorous disgrace, or a lost cause, its industrially contaminated waters dead on arrival at the river’s terminus in Newark Bay. People in Wayne and Fairfield, who after drenching rains often find their basements flooded, wished they could put up a Keep Out sign and make the river obey.

The Passaic’s 90 miles snake through seven counties and 45 municipalities. It is often described as three rivers in one—at its source in Mendham, an idyllic home to heron and trout; chugging through Wayne, a delinquent overflowing its banks; and on the sad home stretch to Newark Bay, a blighted waterway that just might be making a comeback.

From its source in the Mendham hills of southern Morris County, the “upper” Passaic tumbles briskly southeast, dividing Morris from Somerset County with occasional class II rapids. After passing the Great Swamp, it deepens, slows, and turns abruptly left at Stony Hill. Then it heads northeast, past Berkeley Heights and New Providence on its way to Pine Brook and Lincoln Park.

This whole stretch, more than half the river’s total length, is classified by the state Division of Fish, Game and Wildlife as a “wild trout stream.” Rainbows are joined by largemouth and smallmouth bass. Kayaking through New Providence on the brisk last Sunday of autumn, a friend and I were startled by a great blue heron flapping into the sky. “Not bad for an open sewer,” said my friend, cracking a big smile.

“The upper Passaic really is in pretty good shape,” says Dr. Kirk Barrett, director of the 5-year-old Passaic River Institute at Montclair State University.

The second river within a river begins after the Passaic takes a hard right at Lincoln Park and jitters east to Two Bridges in Wayne. Though the water gets deeper and dirtier in this 18-mile stretch, the state Department of Environmental Protection rates the fish as fine for eating. The DEP cautions, however, that as the river again turns northeast, approaching Paterson and the Great Falls, species such as carp, eel, and sunfish should be eaten no more than once a month.

Beyond Paterson, after its dramatic 77 foot plunge over the Great Falls, the river suddenly turns tail between Hawthorne and Fairlawn and dives south. A few miles later, at the 150-year-old Dundee Dam that still holds back a forlorn “lake” of the same name, the “lower” Passaic begins. Here, the river starts its notorious final descent into gross contamination. The last 17 miles, from Dundee Dam to Newark Bay, are brackish—saltwater tides in the bay push upriver and mix with the fresh water moving south. In the 1950s and ’60s, dioxin released from a Newark factory that made Agent Orange for military use in Vietnam was carried along by the tides.

The factory—the Diamond Alkali plant at Lister Avenue in Newark’s Ironbound section—shut down in 1969. But it left a deadly legacy in the form of a thick layer of dioxin still buried under the silt. The toxicity is most concentrated in a quarter-square-mile stretch of riverbed directly behind the Newark site, but the dioxin’s effects stretch northward—past Harrison, past my birthplace in Kearny, past my present neighborhood in Nutley, past Lyndhurst and Rutherford, all the way to Dundee Dam. The federal Environmental Protection Administration warns that eating shellfish caught in the lower Passaic can cause cancer.

Humanity’s insults to the Passaic reach back to the heyday of the Paterson mills and the river’s broad industrialization. In the late 19th Century, foul smells drove people to abandon 100 riverside homes in Harrison. At the same time, cities that drew drinking water from the Passaic—including Newark and Jersey City—suffered outbreaks of typhus and cholera. In June, 1918, a fire raged for hours on the surface of the water between Harrison and Newark, a fiasco reported around the world.

In 1938, when William Carlos Williams published Life Along the Passaic River, he noted that “the river was so full of sewage and dye waste from the mills that you didn’t want to go near it.” In 1970, the EPA issued a seminal report on the state of American rivers that made the shame official, describing the Passaic as “the second most polluted river in the country.”

Shame brought action, albeit slowly. In 1984, after state regulators filed suit against Diamond Alkali and other polluters of the Passaic, Congress added the Passaic to the national Superfund list of toxic hot spots. Ever since, demands for steep fines and a cleanup have been stalled in court. Now, finally, some four decades after the EPA first labeled the Passaic a disaster area, a multi-billion dollar cleanup funded by Diamond Alkali’s legal successors will begin in 2010.

Industrial pollution is not the river’s only problem. The lower Passaic also suffers from pollution that enters the river in its upper reaches. Following its first hairpin turn at Stony Hill, the Passaic begins to pick up surface debris as well as a slow accumulation of road salt, fertilizer, and pet waste dissolved in rain runoff. After sustained downpours, municipal sewage treatment plants all along the river struggle to process their sudden influx of contaminated water. Almost none of these plants have enough excess capacity to store a major rainfall surge; a few overflow even after a light storm. As a result, untreated sewage has to be released into the Passaic.

Yet despite years of neglect and ignorance, followed by ineffective regulation and legal maneuvering by polluters, the Passaic is no longer the deadly waterway of the 19th century. Awareness of its dismal condition, in fact, dates to the epidemics of the 1830s. At first, remedial efforts focused on defending public health. Newark spent millions to create huge reservoirs in the Pequannock Valley and on the upper Passaic that serve it to this day.

For similar reasons, Jersey City established its own reservoirs. It became a model for the world In 1908 when it opened the world’s first drinking water treatment plant using chlorination. The State Legislature got involved in 1902, establishing the Passaic River Sewerage Authority to manage effluent flow into the river. It had some early success with municipalities. But in an era when “progress” was virtually synonymous with factories and industrial jobs, the authority had little power to rein in corporate interests. Industrial pollutants, far more complex than municipal sewage and often invisible, went nearly unregulated until the 1960s, when at last the environment began to be widely regarded as a cultural asset worth preserving.

A turning point came in 1972 with passage of the Clean Water Act by the U.S. Congress. The act, which followed by two years the establishment of the federal EPA, meant not only tougher standards for wastewater treatment and industrial waste, but also a mandate for states and federal agencies to prosecute violators. In New Jersey, words like Superfund and dioxin entered the vernacular as court dockets swelled with actions against alleged polluters. The Passaic quickly became a primary battleground in the national environmental movement.

But court action proved frustrating. Corporate legal coffers proved more than a match for the federal government, and the comings and goings of political appointees over the years often left such cases to languish. For instance, the $80 million that will finally allow the hot spot cleanup in Newark to begin next year stems from a case filed in 1983, during Ronald Reagan’s first term.

To an extent, time also has been on the river’s side. The most important change was the decline of heavy industry. Home to some of the earliest factories of the American industrial revolution, towns like Passaic, Paterson, Newark, Harrison, and others, saw factories close one after another in the 1970s and ‘80s. Some plants fell victim to the general decline of manufacturing. A few cited the high cost of unionized labor or the new aggressiveness of state environmental regulators.

Environmentalists suspect the real reason was the companies’ realization that the poisons buried beneath their properties would ultimately cost the firms millions to clean up. Indeed, EPA and DEP are pursuing cases against the former tenants of hundreds of such sites along the Passaic.

Still, the industrial decline has helped the Passaic begin to recover. For better or worse, as seasons passed silt began to bury the worst of the toxins.

“Development is still a problem,” says Barrett, director of the Passaic River Institute. “The capacity of municipal sewage treatment plants has to increase if we’re going to avoid the sewage problems after big storms. But the river is much healthier than it was 10, 20, 30 years ago. Time—and an awareness that the river could be a fantastic resource—has brought progress.”

Where barges and tugs once plied the lower Passaic, an environmentally friendly class of craft began appearing in the late 1990s—the long, narrow sculls of competitive rowing, now prevalent from Garfield down to Newark. The Nereid Rowing Club and the Passaic River Rowing Club boast membership rolls in the hundreds and hold annual regattas on the river. Nearby high schools also compete in crew. One local rower who proved her mettle on the lower Passaic is Nutley High School senior Erika Lockhart, who in December agreed to row next season for national champion UCLA.

Wildlife, too, is on the rebound. Through stocking and better water quality, shad, striped bass, and perch have returned to the lower Passaic. Waterfowl numbers have increased since the early 1980s, too, according to the state Division of Fish and Wildlife. These developments have started to pique interest in local communities about the river’s recreational potential.

In 2006, Ed “Steamboat Willie” Marchese, a 55-year-old electrical engineer and avid fisherman from Clifton, formed the Passaic River Boat Club. Its members gather once a month at a VFW hall in Nutley to review the river-related agendas of local city councils, the state DEP, and other government bodies. Marchese and PRBS members will often show up at the meetings of these agencies to press demands for redevelopment of decrepit boat ramps and improvement of navigation markers.

As happy as many locals are to see the Passaic improving, they know a toxic time bomb still lurks a few feet beneath the riverbed. When the EPA announced its settlement paving the way for the 2010 cleanup, Congressman Bill Pascrell of Paterson, who had often criticized the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers for the delays, greeted the news with predictions of a veritable golden age.

“Once this cleanup effort begins,” he said, “our region will start to realize the powerful economic, environmental, and recreational benefits the Passaic River has to offer.”

The EPA’s contractors will seal off and dredge the sediment in a quarter-square-mile area which contains a bit more than half of all the dioxin dumped by the company while producing pesticide and Agent Orange. The contractors will then quarantine the dioxin in a sealed and monitored retention area in Newark Bay. The $80 million project, funded by the defunct company’s inheritor, Occidental Petroleum, results from decades of litigation initiated by New Jersey and the federal government.

Not everyone is convinced the river has finally turned the corner. The Sierra Club, the Passaic River Coalition, and many local groups want a plan to clean up all 17 miles of the lower Passaic. They worry that the drive to revive will lose momentum after the Diamond Alkali hot spot is dredged. Indeed, in early February, two companies involved in the hot spot cleanup filed a countersuit against the state of New Jersey attempting to add more than 300 other companies with historical links to the Passaic as co-defendants. The continued legal wrangling probably won’t delay the 2010 cleanup, but it signals that the battle to clean up the lower Passaic is far from over.

In 2007, the Lower Passaic River Restoration Project, a partnership of federal and state agencies, including EPA, state DEP, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the U.S. Geological Survey, calculated the cost of various ways to tackle the entire lower Passaic. To dredge and remove the poisoned riverbed from the last eight miles before Newark Bay, the area with the highest levels of contamination, the Restoration Project estimated would cost $2-$2.3 billion dollars. But dredging is controversial among scientists like Barrett of the Passaic River Institute, who believe it could re-circulate dioxin-laced sediment currently buried as much as five feet beneath the riverbed.

“We just can’t be sure it won’t do as much damage as good,” he says.

EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers currently favor a less ambitious but no less controversial approach: “capping.” This procedure would entomb the poisoned sediments under thick layers of sand and heavy rock, making it far less likely the buried dioxin would ever resurface. Capping the entire 17 miles of lower Passaic was estimated to cost $900 million to $1.1 billion, while dredging the entire length and safely disposing of the contaminated soil would cost up to $4 billion.

Jeff Tittel, head of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club, speaks for many environmentalists when he asserts that capping provides only a temporary solution. “Ultimately, it will fail,” he says. “You have to remove the contamination. There is no easy solution.”

Barrett maintains that capping could work, and that its relatively low cost and technical feasibility make it an attractive option. “If somehow the riverbed can be capped, theoretically the toxins will eventually dissipate to levels which will not threaten humans,” he says. “But there are no guarantees.”

Another major, if less inflammatory problem, is the thick silt that over time has migrated up the tidal portion of the river from Newark Bay. Decades of such accumulation have choked off the deeper navigational channels. Sportfishermen and boaters want the old navigation channel cleared. They also want silt removed from the shoreline so that dilapidated boat-launching ramps can be rebuilt. That would add an additional $500 million to the tab, according to the Restoration Project’s estimate.

Neither the EPA nor the Army Corps of Engineers, the agency that would ultimately do the work, favors dredging. “Right now, if the Army Corps of Engineers were to dredge, they would have a real problem getting rid of the contaminated material,” says David Kleusner, spokesman for the EPA’s regional office in New York. “EPA’s charge is to protect water quality, and we’re worried what might be dredged up, so to speak. But there is also the argument about boat access—at the very least clearing silt away from boat ramps. We think that’s a good debate because it suggests the river has turned a corner. People want to use it. People want to get back into the Passaic.”

“All of this is a sign that the river is coming back to life,” says Barrett. “Measuring the health of a river is a difficult proposition.”

Michael Moran is a Nutley resident and executive editor of, the website of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

To read more stories from our Waterfront Getaways issue, click on the links below:

Pinelands Odyssey

The Take on Lakes

Rollin’ Down the Delaware

Pleasant Crossing

Walking the Waterfront

Down by the River

Livin’ La Vida Lago

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