From paradise to Superfund, afloat on New Jersey’s Passaic River
Photo: Mary BrunoAndy Willner, recently retired Executive Director of the N.Y./N.J. Baykeeper Association, is passionate, generous, cocky, fearless, and a bit bombastic. I love him. He says the N.Y./N.J. Metropolitan Area is a “big region” with “low environmental self-esteem.” His mission is to awaken citizens to regional treasures like the Passaic. He says that people don’t know the Passaic anymore, that the river is a stranger to them, and that you can’t care about something that you don’t know. He invited me to join him on a Passaic River boat ride.
Our boat was a 16-foot Aqua Patio. It looked like a floating hot tub, all white with a high freeboard and banquette seating, ideal for the civilian river trips that the Baykeeper regularly runs up the Passaic. The two-hour tour took us about three miles upriver, from the mouth in south Newark to the New Jersey Performing Arts Center at the north end of downtown. It was the first time I had ever actually been out on the Passaic.
I took a seat in the bow with a pair of environmental engineers from Pennsylvania and three attorneys from the Rutgers Environmental Law Center. Janice and Martin, a retired couple from New York, were squeezed into the stern alongside two researchers from the New York Academy of Sciences, who were studying the ecology of New York Harbor.
Skipper Bill Sheehan had the helm amidships. He was sturdy and gruff with a shark tooth necklace and a bushy red moustache the color of sunset that completely obscured his upper lip. He leaned against the gunwale, just in front of Janice, one hand on the wheel. He had the look of a cop, or a bartender, or the ship’s captain that he was. The look of someone who is comfortable being in charge.
Andy, our host, was a sunnier presence. He had a full gray beard and a thick shag of salt and pepper hair. A seafaring rabbi. A 35mm camera swung from his neck. He used his free hand — the one that wasn’t gesticulating — to brace the camera against his middle-aged paunch. He had made this trip upriver on many, many occasions, but he snapped pictures with the eagerness of a first-timer. He pointed out his favorite bridge. He marveled aloud at the play of sunlight on the glass facades of the new office towers along the shore. Wonder lives next to outrage in his heart.
We set out from the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission’s massive sewage treatment plant on the shores of Newark Bay. The 172-acre complex of circular tanks, pipes, pumps and stacks processes waste for 1.3 million residents in New Jersey’s Passaic, Bergen, Essex, and Hudson counties.
Once we cleared the dock, Andy unfurled a nautical chart and located our position in the labyrinth of bays, tidal inlets, islands, and marsh. Raritan Bay was below us, linked to Newark Bay by the Arthur Kill, a tidal strait that separates New Jersey from Staten Island. Across Newark Bay to the east lay the Meadowlands, the vast salt marsh that is home to the Hackensack River. Above us, and well within view, were the mouths of the Hackensack and the Passaic. The two rivers flow down from the north and squeeze the last bite of land between them into a chubby, muddy “V” called Point No Point before they disappear into Newark Bay.
Andy straightened up, and with a sweep of his right arm, lassoed up the entire view. “All these bays were much larger,” he said. “They were all extraordinary wetlands. The Passaic was one of the most bountiful rivers in the whole system, this estuarine stream with tributaries coming into it and a marsh system all around it.”