From paradise to Superfund, afloat on New Jersey’s Passaic River
From 1951 to 1983, the Diamond Alkali plant manufactured pesticides and weed killers and close to a million gallons of Agent Orange, the defoliant that U.S. military aircraft sprayed onto the jungles of South Viet Nam during the war. The process of making Agent Orange generated huge quantities of dioxin, a poisonous byproduct that remains the most carcinogenic substance known to man. Diamond’s dioxin poisoned its workers, its plant site, the surrounding neighborhood, and the river too. We were right to be afraid of the Passaic.
Photo: Mary BrunoThe remains of the Diamond Alkali plant were entombed beneath the grey concrete mound we floated past. It was the highlight of the tour. Fifteen feet high and about the size of a football field, the mound was secured behind a concrete bulkhead and a steel fence, sealed with multiple layers of clay, and capped with an impermeable “geofabric” membrane. The mound is a six-acre grave within which lie the remains of the deconstructed Diamond factory buildings and 932 shipping containers filled with 66,000 cubic yards of dioxin-contaminated dirt, dust and debris that environmental cleanup crews vacuumed from the streets, stores, schools, houses, playgrounds, and empty lots near the property.
A few thousand years from now, remarked Bill, archeologists studying this site will conclude that the people of the late 20th Century “built monuments to their pollution the way the ancient Egyptians built monuments to their pharaohs.” With that, he kicked the engine back in gear and we continued slowly upstream. The skyline of downtown Newark was just ahead. Sunlight lasered off the smoked glass windows of the FBI’s new riverside tower.
“How come there are no other boats on the river?” asked Janice. Her face was hidden beneath the peak of her white cotton cap, which was pulled low against the harsh sun. It was a good question, direct and obvious, and it cut to the heart of things. Even the poison mound and the Mad Max landscape and the occasional doomsday commentary from Andy and Bill hadn’t managed to spoil the simple joy of being out on the water.
My mother would have enjoyed this boat ride. She always dreamed of living by the water. Whenever she would mention this, my father would tease her: “You do!” he’d say. “You live on the Passaic River.”
In a way, he was right. There was a time when people would have coveted our home above the river. The Passaic was valued once, even beloved. Civic leaders harnessed its power to fuel their industrial revolution. Artists immortalized its beauty in paintings and verse. The river’s clear, navigable waters sustained the settlers, who farmed and fished its fertile basin, and built cities and towns, like mine, along its banks. But those days didn’t last.
The Passaic’s beauty had been ravaged and its bounty spent long before Janice posed her question. The river view mansions were boarded up. Riverfront hotels shut down. Rowing clubs disbanded. The benches in riverside parks were turned to face the street. By the time I was born the Passaic’s lower stretch was a garbage can, a cesspool. The river was poisoned and it was dead and even a kid like me could see it.
No one in my large extended family ever mentioned the state of the river. No one seemed to mourn it. The Passaic was something we crossed over or drove along, but it was never something we engaged. The river was like an elephant in the living room of my childhood. Its death was a ho-hum fact of life, like Friday night shore traffic on the Garden State Parkway or Hudson County politicians on the take. Some people must have fought for the river once. But the battle was long over. People moved on. Like those park benches, they turned their backs on the Passaic.
My mother, the water dreamer, told us not to play by the river, but she didn’t have to. How come there were no other boats on the Passaic River on this perfect late-September afternoon? I knew the answer to Janice’s question.