NEWARK, N.J. — Amid the flotsam and jetsam of plastic bottles, car tires and other urban debris that litter the lower Passaic River, Hugh Carola, 56, guided a pontoon boat full of visitors through the waterway, whose terminus is a busy port and is lined with heavy industries that once dumped toxic chemicals into the river.
As the boat passed by the rusty Point-No-Point Bridge, an osprey — a fish-hunting raptor with a snow white chin — took off from a nest at the bridge and warily circled the boat. Later, Carola saw what the osprey was jealously guarding: two noisy chicks that peeked their heads from the twigs and branches of their nest.
“I was absolutely amazed,” said Carola, the program director of the Hackensack Riverkeeper, a nonprofit environmental group that advocates for local waterways. “If they are nesting and successfully reproducing, they are finding enough prey.”
The ospreys are just the tip of an unexpected and vibrant ecosystem in the lower 17 miles of the Passaic River, which is federally designated a Superfund site, harboring hazardous waste and listed for cleanup and restoration. It was the location of a factory that manufactured Agent Orange, the infamous herbicide that poisoned countless people during the Vietnam War.
But now different species of fish and birds ply for food in the brackish waters, where even some shellfish such as mussels can be found. Herons and egrets flap their wings next to white oil storage tanks. Carp have been known to jump and startle recreational boaters.
They thrive along with the industries on the river and the gigantic ocean tankers that dock at Port Newark–Elizabeth, one of the busiest seaports in the world. And nature may be poised for a greater resurgence as federal and local officials await a final cleanup plan this year to address more than a century of toxic chemicals lurking in the brown muck of the riverbed.
“It’s going to take a while. It’s going to be cleaned up,” said Debbie Mans, the executive director of N.Y./N.J. Baykeeper, a nonprofit environmental group that is devoted to protecting the heavily urbanized estuary that encompasses the New Jersey and New York City metro area and has been involved in restoration plans.
‘I was absolutely amazed. If [ospreys] are nesting and successfully reproducing, they are finding enough prey.’
program director, Hackensack Riverkeeper
The Passaic — which means “peaceful valley” in Algonquin — is an 80-mile stretch of water that starts in a rural, wooded area of New Jersey’s Morris County and winds through the suburbs before cascading into the Great Falls at Paterson. It then travels through one of the most heavily urbanized areas of the state, laps along the city of Newark and flows into Newark Bay.
When Europeans first set their sights on the area, the river and the surrounding woodlands were lush with vegetation, game and fish, said Carola. Oyster beds filtered tidal sediment, wetlands hid shellfish and marsh birds, and fish such as sturgeon returned from the sea to spawn upriver. Native Americans from the Lenape tribe reaped a harvest from the land. "Food was so abundant that there was plenty to go around,” he said.
But with European settlement, the wilderness in the lower Passaic River gave way to industries such as leather tanning, cotton milling and silk making. Along its banks, the Industrial Revolution brought in river-powered factories, and the Passaic was a conduit for the transportation of goods. But people also dumped trash and factory runoff into the river.
In the early 20th century, the water was clearly polluted, said Carola. People were getting sick from eating the fish. The problems got worse as cities continued releasing wastewater into the Passaic and chemical plants sprang up. One such factory was the Diamond Alkali Co. pesticide plant, which operated from 1951 to 1969. Besides making Agent Orange, the factory dumped into the river and surrounding area cancer-causing chemicals such as dioxin.
In the 1980s, the Passaic River was a noxious zone that people were warned to stay away from, remembers Joseph Nardone, a Newark resident. Before it was declared a Superfund site in 1984, he said, he remembered people in hazmat suits combing his neighborhood and using vacuums to scour the ground of dioxins. Testing revealed a disturbing level of poisonous chemicals at the Diamond Alkali plant and in the river sediment.
“People were really frightened,” he said.
The Superfund site was gradually expanded from the plant site to encompass the lower 17 miles of the river, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The bulk of the contamination, totaling about 9.7 million cubic yards and reaching as deep as 15 feet in the river mud in some parts, lies in the lower 8 miles of the river.
“The sediment in the Passaic River is severely contaminated with dioxin, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), heavy metals, pesticides and other contaminants from more than a century of industrial activity,” wrote EPA spokesman Elias Rodriguez in an email.
‘The sediment in the Passaic River is severely contaminated with dioxin, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), heavy metals, pesticides and other contaminants from more than a century of industrial activity.’
Cleanup will be challenging because the river moves the sediment into other parts of the river and into Newark Bay. Some work has already started.
“In 2012 the EPA completed the removal of 40,000 cubic yards of the most highly contaminated sediment in the Passaic River, adjacent to the former Diamond Alkali facility in Newark, New Jersey,” wrote Rodriguez. “In 2013–2014 the EPA oversaw the removal of another approximately 16,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment from a mudflat near Lyndhurst, New Jersey.”
The Diamond Alkali site was capped to prevent pollution at the site from leaching into the surrounding landscape. Workers built concrete walls around the former plant and installed a multilayered cap consisting of gravel and a plastic membrane.
New Jersey’s government has taken polluters to court and has won big settlements that should pay for the cleanup, which the EPA has estimated could cost upward of $1.7 billion. One such settlement was reached last year when Occidental Chemical Corp., the company that owns the Diamond Alkali site, agreed to pay $190 million to the state.
Last year the EPA released a proposed plan that called for dredging the poisoned sediment and then capping the river bottom in the lower 8 miles, possibly using a layer of sand and stone. The sediment would be shipped elsewhere. A final plan should be released this year, said Rodriguez.
Along with the cleanup, there are plans to restore and enhance wetlands to parts of the river, according to Lisa Baron, the project manager at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has released studies on habitat restoration.
Meanwhile in Newark, residents and visitors alike have been rediscovering the river after the city opened a new park along its banks, said Marcy DePina, the director for the city’s riverfront revival program. There have been parades to the river, concerts, festivals and Zumba and yoga sessions at the park. One of the capstones of the program is the boat tours, one of which Carola was leading when he spied the ospreys.
When asked why wildlife seem to have rebounded in the river, he pointed out that many industries moved overseas and that environmental laws in the 1980s had a large impact on keeping polluters accountable. Over the decades since, the water has become cleaner, he said, though people are still warned not to eat fish from the Passaic.
Damon Rich, a former planning director for Newark, witnessed longtime city residents’ reactions when they saw wildlife in the river.
“It’s really amazing to watch other people’s shock. You assume it’s a place without life,” said Rich, who has led some of the boat tours. “That despite the horrific things done to the river, the ecology really continues to survive. For young people, it’s like they are watching TV. They are staring, and their mouths are open.”