Passaic River Loses a Friend

Bob DeVita, longtime manager of the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission’s River Restoration Department, passed away last week. I never met Bob in person, but I interviewed him several times for This American River. We talked mostly about Bob’s work managing the PVSC’s  two skimmer boats, which remove tons of floating garbage from the river’s surface every year. But Bob was instrumental in creating many PVSC programs that brought people to the Passaic. He was also a wonderful interview subject – generous and funny, a great storyteller, and clearly passionate about his work with the Passaic. “There is an enormous void left in not only the entire Passaic River community, but also in the lives of those that knew Bob,” wrote Tom Pietrykoski, a PVSC colleague, in an email announcing Bob’s death. “It is now up to us to carry on his legacy.”

There will be a memorial service on Saturday, October 3rd from 2-8pm at the Elks Lodge, 50 Hinchman Avenue, in Wayne, N.J. October 3, 2009 would have been Bob DeVita’s 59th birthday.

Brick City Documentary

Brick City, a five-part documentary about Newark Mayor Corey Booker’s fight efforts to fight crime, premiers Monday, September 21 on The Sundance Channel. Filmmaker Marc Levin hails from Maplewood, N.J. Brick City‘s executive producer is Oscar-winning actor/director Forrest Whitaker, who was intrigued by Booker because “he empowers people, and he’s done that on so many occasions.” Booker managed to reduce Newark’s crime rate by 40 percent in 2008. The mayor has also been a good friend to Newark’s Passaic River. His administration has installed a public boat dock near downtown and has been hosting free public boat tours up and down the river. Booker is also pushing ahead with plans to build an 11-acre park along the Passaic waterfront in Newark.

Damn the Dams

A recent story in the online publication Yale Environment 360 reports on the impact of a planned series of dams along Southeast Asia’s Mekong River. A remarkable two-thirds of the world’s rivers have already been dammed. The 2,800-mile-long Mekong was one of the world’s last free-run rivers; that is, until China completed the Xiaowan dam last fall. At 958 feet high, Xiaowan is the world’s tallest dam and the first of eight that China plans to erect along the Mekong. A United Nations report has called these dams “the single greatest threat” to the future of the Mekong river, which sustains the world’s second largest fishery.

The Pasaaic River has three small dams along its length, if you count the modest stone impoundment that maintains historic Leddell Pond in Mendham.  The dam above Great Falls in Paterson, designed to hijack the river’s flow in order to power Paterson’s mills and factories, has had the most effect on the river’s natural state. But the impact of dams on the Passaic River has been minimal compared to their impact on the major rivers of the American west – the Columbia, the Snake, the Colorado. For a detailed – and disturbing – chronicle of American dam building and its not so positive effects, read Marc Reisner’s 1989 classic Cadillac Desert.

Yes, There ARE Fish in the Passaic River

Eels and crabs too, and scientists are assessing the health of their populations in the Lower Passaic River. Researchers are snagging specimens with nets, processing them at a makeshift lab in East Rutherford then sending tissue samples on to a Massachusetts lab for analysis. The goal to determine how Passaic River wildlife is handling Passaic River toxins. The federal EPA is supervising the fish study, which is being paid for by The Lower Passaic Cooperating Parties, the group of 73 companies that the EPA considers responsible for the industrial contamination in the Passaic River downstream of Garfield’s Dundee Dam. Pollutants include heavy metals, PCBs and, of course, the massive concentrations of dioxin in the river sediments near the old Diamond Alkali plant in Newark. Once scientists finish sampling Passaic River fish, crabs and eels, they’ll start looking at the Passaic’s populations of fish- and crab-eating birds. The wildlife assessment is all part of the Diamond Superfund cleanup, whose headliner project gins up next fall when crews will begin dredging 40,000 cubic yards of dioxin-laced sediments from the riverbed in Newark’s Ironbound neighborhood.

Phosphorous Free In Union County

A big shout out to the Passaic River communities of Summit, New Providence and Berkeley Heights. They are the first three New Jersey municipalities to ban the use of phosphorous lawn fertilizers and restrict when and how residents can use other lawn fertilizing products. (Excess phosphorous stimulates the growth of algae and other aquatic plants that can foul waterways.) The new fertilizer rules are part of the NJ Department of Environmental Protection’s push to limit the runoff of chemicals into the state’s rivers and streams. The DEP wants all communities in the eight Passaic River counties – Bergen, Essex, Morris, Passaic, Somerset, Sussex and Union – to follow suit. Enforcing the new bans may be trickier than passing them, said Summit Councilman Tom Getzendanner: “We aren’t going to have environmental police running around.” But if community officials make an effort to educate their constituents about the dangers of phosphorous lawn fertilizers and introduce them to effective, biodegradable alternatives, Passaic River  communities may just police themselves. Peter Grant, Director of Horticulture and Site Preservation at the Summit Arboretum, is taking the first step in that direction by offering two workshops on how to have a beautiful lawn and still comply with the new no-phosphorous regs.
Grant’s workshops are Wednesday, Sept 30th at 7:00 pm and Saturday, October 3rd at 10 am. No charge for Summit residents.
To register call 908.273.8787, ext 1414.


Lax Enforcement of Clean Water Act

On Sunday, The New York Times ran an investigative report about rampant violations of the nation’s Clean Water. More distressing than the violations though was the lax enforcement by state and federal environmental agencies. According to The Times, records submitted by polluters themselves show that “the Clean Water Act has been violated more than 506,000 times since 2004, by more than 23,000 companies” around the U.S. Most of those transgressions went unremarked by local, state and federal regulators. In New Jersey enforcement of the Clean Water Act is actually pretty strong. The state ranked fourth in overall enforcement rate, behind Nevada (#1), North Carolina (#2) and Oregon (#3). Some of the credit for that respectable showing belongs to Lisa Jackson, former commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. Not long after Jackson publicly dared Passaic River polluters to do the right thing and clean up their mess, the state reached agreement with corporate polluters and the process of cleaning up dioxin-laden Passaic River sediments finally got underway. If Jackson takes the same hard-nosed stand at the federal EPA, Clean Water Act violators and regulators would be well advised to clean up their acts.