The Passaic River: The Dirty Truth About That Other Jersey Shore NPR producer Art Silverman uncovers New Jersey's filthy situation: the Passaic River. U.S. manufacturing was jump-started along its banks. Now the river is so toxic, part of it is a superfund site, and much of the rest is, as one writer puts it, "a toilet."
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The Dirty Truth About That Other Jersey Shore

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The Dirty Truth About That Other Jersey Shore

The Dirty Truth About That Other Jersey Shore

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Im Melissa Block.


And Im Robert Siegel.

Youve heard our expeditions down those exotic foreign rivers - the Volga, the Congo, the Mekong - stories full of local color and history. Well, today, a journey down a river closer to home: New Jersey's Passaic River.

The Passaic, once at the heart of America's Industrial Revolution, is now the subject of a difficult environmental cleanup effort. Layers of pollutants sit at the bottom of the lower end of the river, and it could take years to rid the Passaic of dangerous chemicals - with a price tag in the billions.

BLOCK: NPR's Art Silverman decided to find out how the Passaic got so polluted. Before he got under way, he sought advice from a veteran river explorer, NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, who traveled down Africa's Congo.

ART SILVERMAN: What can you tell me for my river trip? What should I keep in mind as I go?

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: Well, your Passaic River may not be as majestic, as fabled, and as celebrated as the Congo. But every river, every river has a story to tell. Let the river tell you its story. It will.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

SILVERMAN: Okay. But before I can listen to my river, I have to find out where it actually starts - and thats not easy.

Do you think this is it?

Ms. SALLY RUBIN (Executive Director, Great Swamp Watershed Association): Ah, this is definitely it. This is it.

SILVERMAN: This is about - what, 5 feet even - 4 or 5 feet across?

Ms. RUBIN: Four or 5 feet across, maybe 6 or 8 inches deep with a nice, slow, steady flow.

SILVERMAN: This is Sally Rubin. She's showing me the headwaters of the 90-mile Passaic River. It turns out, mile zero is behind a high school in the town of Mendham, New Jersey.

Ms. RUBIN: And when you get further downstream and you see Newark, and we go out on the river on a boat, you know, where it is navigable, try to remember what it looked like up here - because it'll be very different.

SILVERMAN: I know that lower river she's talking about. That's the Passaic Im used to glancing down at, from the New Jersey Turnpike or an Amtrak train.

For the first five miles, Sally Rubin travels with me along the Passaic. She explains that runoff from roads and parking lots is starting to pollute the river.

Ms. RUBIN: And the water from the road goes down these cute, little storm drains and you say, oh, where does the water go? It just doesn't go away; there is no away.

SILVERMAN: Rubin is the executive director of the Great Swamp Watershed Association. The swamp is a national wildlife refuge. The Passaic passes through it about 10 miles from the headwaters.

And leaving that swamp, you'd think the river is unspoiled. It could be the same river that inspired John McNab to write a poem about it back in 1890, "The Song of the Passaic."

Unidentified Man #1: (Reading) And in the rise, the light and glow of grand old rivers, in their flow from distant hills through dales and leas, the fair Passaic seeks the sea.

(Soundbite of song, "The Song of the Passaic")

FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE (Musical Group): (Singing) And in the rise, the light and glow of grand old rivers, in their flow from distant hills, through dales and leas, the fair Passaic seeks the sea.

SILVERMAN: I was hoping to find indigenous music as I traveled along the Passaic - no luck. Instead, I asked this band, called Fountains of Wayne, to perform that old poem as a song. The band, by the way, borrowed its name from a store that stood not far from the Passaic River.

But, as I traveled along the river, I heard no one singing about it - only people fretting about it.

Ms. MARY BRUNO (Author, "This American River from Paradise to Superfund"): I was haunted by the Passaic River.

SILVERMAN: Mary Bruno. Like me, she grew up along the Passaic. She writes about it in her book, "This American River from Paradise to Superfund." She has one big question for the river to answer.

Ms. BRUNO: What happened to you, that river that I grew to know as I grew up? It wasn't always dirty and oily and scary. It was beautiful, and it was lush, and it was filled with life.

SILVERMAN: Now, more than 50 miles from the headwaters, seeing evidence of abuse piling up along the river, I follow the twists and turns of the Passaic and have come to Little Falls, New Jersey.

Mr. WHEELER ANTABANEZ (River Guide): Over there, you've got some Styrofoam, whatyoumacallit thing...

SILVERMAN: This is my river guide.

Mr. ANTABANEZ: My name is Wheeler Antabanez...

SILVERMAN: He's come along to point out the damage done to the Passaic.

Mr. ANTABANEZ: So you got a Home Depot orange bucket sitting on top of the falls.

SILVERMAN: Nice. It looks like it's not moving, either.

Mr. ANTABANEZ: Yeah, the water is not that high. So - and over there, you can see the slick of green algae. You see the glinting in the sun of many cans and bottles and balls. And there's another bucket.

SILVERMAN: Wheeler's real name is Matt Kent. He's a 33-year-old river rat with a perverse love of the Passaic River.

Mr. ANTABANEZ: It takes a certain type of person to love the Passaic River, and I guess I embody that person. I like the Passaic River because it's abandoned. It's my river now. It's my territory.

SILVERMAN: Five miles further along, to Totowa, New Jersey. Office parks, highways surround the Passaic. Down on the riverbank, I find Mark Greco, fishing.

Mr. MARK GRECO: There are some nice fish in here.

SILVERMAN: There's a ban on eating fish from the lower Passaic River. But Graco isn't worried. He's not fishing for food; he's fishing for sport.

Mr. GRECO: My grandfather used to drive his car on this river frozen - when it would freeze. He used to drive his station wagon, and take us in the car with him on the river. My grandfather was gangster.

SILVERMAN: About 70 meandering miles from where it began, at Paterson, New Jersey, the Passaic becomes spectacular.

(Soundbite of a waterfall)

SILVERMAN: The great falls of the Passaic, a 77-foot-deep cataract, nature's gift to New Jersey. And New Jersey has given much back to the falls.

Mr. ANTABANEZ: And if you look below us here, you'll see rippling sewage froth on the surface of the water. And when it goes over the falls, all the sewage gets stirred up, and it turns nice and creamy. Looks like chocolate milk - you almost want a drink it.

Mr. LEONARD ZAX (President, Hamilton Partnership for Paterson): No natural wonder in America has played a greater role in shaping our history.

SILVERMAN: This is Leonard Zax, born and raised here in the City of Paterson. He helped get this area declared a national park.

In these foul waters, there's a lot of history - it all grew out of a lunchtime outing a long time ago.

Mr. RON CHERNOW (Author): One day during the Revolutionary War, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington and the Marquis De Lafayette picnicked by the great falls of the Passaic.

SILVERMAN: Ron Chernow. He wrote a biography about Alexander Hamilton.

Mr. CHERNOW: We don't know whether at moment Hamilton had a vision of America's industrial future. But he certainly knew that water was the electricity of the early Industrial Revolution, and that every day up to 2 billion gallons poured over that very scenic bend in the Passaic River.

So I like to imagine that as he was looking up at that water plunging 70 feet to the river bottom, that he could see it spinning the blades of turbines and water wheels.

(Soundbite of a loom)

SILVERMAN: Paterson was once known as Silk City. And a few blocks from the great falls, there's this working loom in the Paterson Museum.

(Soundbite of a loom)

SILVERMAN: When Alexander Hamilton became the first U.S. Treasury secretary, he pushed a plan that turned this spot into America's first manufacturing city, free from dependence on Europe - all due to the great falls. Hundreds of locomotives were built here. The first true motorized submarine was built here, and tested in the Passaic River. And Samuel Colt made America's first repeating revolver at Paterson.

Mr. ANTABANEZ: We are at the Colt Mill complex, which is one of the worst spots along the Passaic River.

SILVERMAN: We go down a hill behind a homeless people's encampment, to find the decaying structure where Colt made his guns. It's surrounded by brush and weeds, and littered with syringes.

Mr. ANTABANEZ: I find a lot of people living around here, spray painting the walls. And I find it to be one of the most interesting spots, even though it's one of the most dangerous spots.

SILVERMAN: Civic boosters hope tourists will overlook Paterson's present and come to the city to see its history, and contemplate the role the Passaic once played. But some local residents are less enthusiastic about the river.

Mr. SONNY MIER(ph): People themselves in Paterson, they really don't give (BEEP). They'll dump bodies; they'll dump anything in there.

SILVERMAN: Sonny Mier strolls on a sidewalk not far from the Passaic.

Mr. MIER: Every time I look at it, it's like - it's sad. You go to like, upstate New York, you see their rivers, it's all clean, nice. Over here, it looks like you touch it, you'll probably get AIDS or something - on it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. KIRK R. BARRETT (Director, Passaic River Institute): The lower river is a victim of 200-plus years of industrialization and urbanization.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Barrett's first name is Kirk, not Rick.]

SILVERMAN: Rick Barrett, director of the Passaic River Institute - at Dundee Dam, almost 80 miles downstream from where I started. Barrett knows what's in the Passaic River and studies it - and it's not pretty.

Dr. BARRETT: Mercury, lead, PCBs, arsenic, DDT, polyaromatic hydrocarbons, dibenzofuran, naprocine(ph), benzopyrene, trysine, fluorenscein(ph), fluorine, napromine.

Unidentified Man #1: Ready, rope.

SILVERMAN: These people are members of the Nereid Rowing Club, in the Town of Rutherford.

Unidentified Man #2: Let her run.

SILVERMAN: Despite what's in the water, high school crew teams and several rowing clubs use the Passaic. A century ago, you might have found people out on islands, picnicking on a Sunday afternoon. Children once swam the river.

(Soundbite of a train whistle)

SILVERMAN: Now to the last stretch of the river: Newark. In the 1960s, there was a plant here that produced the Passaic's worst waste products.

(Soundbite of archived news clips)

Unidentified Man #3: During the Vietnam War, 10 million gallons of Agent Orange were spread over the jungles...

Unidentified Man #4: Eighteen to 20 million gallons of chemical herbicides were dropped on Vietnam. Key component: dioxin.

Unidentified Man #5: Dioxin is the most dangerous poison made by man.

(Soundbite of vehicles)

Captain BILLY SHEEHAN (Passaic River Patrol): Right behind me right now is the Diamond Shamrock - former Diamond Shamrock Chemical Company.

SILVERMAN: Captain Billy Sheehan, of the Passaic River Patrol. He welcomes me aboard his boat, near the mouth of the river. He shows me where Agent Orange was once made, and where an effort to clean up its waste product is going on.

Capt. SHEEHAN: Behind that 8-foot-thick enclosure is, literally, tons of dioxin-laden debris.

SILVERMAN: The entire lower 17 miles of the river is a Superfund site. Poison clings to the bottom, and has to be dug out and contained. We pass a residential area, called the Ironbound. During the era when Agent Orange was made here, the waste product became airborne.

Capt. SHEEHAN: Imagine the horror in the Ironbound community when people woke up, looked out their window, and saw people in Tyvek suits with gloves and respirators, vacuuming the streets.

Mr. MICHAEL TURNER (Spokesman, Tierra Solutions): There could have been more care used.

SILVERMAN: Michael Turner. He speaks for the company that inherited responsibility for cleaning up this mess. But he points out that it wasn't just Agent Orange that ruined the Passaic River.

Mr. TURNER: This whole area here was used as an enormous - like, industrial park. And you know, unfortunately, you also have people whose neighborhoods are involved here, too. And they all worked here, and everyone benefited from the economic activity. It's just now, there's a lot of people, including us, that have a responsibility to address the river, and find ways to restore it.

Mayor CORY BOOKER (Newark, New Jersey): The Passaic River has had a horrible reputation.

SILVERMAN: That's Newark Mayor Cory Booker. His city is finishing the park on the banks of the Passaic.

Mayor BOOKER: We're trying to bring our city back to the river. It was the butt of jokes, in terms of its pollution - to now, something that's going to become, again, a source of life and light and excitement in our city.

Mr. ANTABANEZ: I like the river the way it is. It's everyone else that wants to change it.

SILVERMAN: That's Wheeler, our river guide. He has his doubts about the future of the Passaic River.

Mr. ANTABANEZ: If you come down here enough, and you listen to what the river's telling you, she is crying out to be saved. And that's, I think, why people have devoted their lives to it. I just think it's unfortunate because I don't think they have a chance in hell of ever cleaning this river, you know what I mean?

SILVERMAN: Well, as I come to the end of my river journey, I realize the legacy of abusing the Passaic runs back 200 years. The story of the river mirrors the progress, and the carelessness, of an entire nation.

(Soundbite of "The Song of the Passaic")

FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE: (Singing) Until its slow and lazy tide tide, or flows its banks on either side. And vast, expansive wastelands fill with ooze of water at its will.

SILVERMAN: Art Silverman, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE: (Singing) The fair Passaic seeks the sea. The fair Passaic seeks the sea.

BLOCK: If you want to see what the Passaic River looks like today, check out our video of Art Silverman's journey down his Jersey shore. That's at

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