Bob DeVita has worked for the PVSC for more than 30 years, and managed the skimmer boat program since it began in 1998. In an average year, said DeVita, his fleet removes about 200 tons of “floatables” from the river. One year, the take topped 280 tons. “A lot of the weight is with the timber,” said DeVita. Riverside trees, chain-sawed logs, telephone poles and driftwood from old piers and railroad ties are common collectibles. The biggest bobber his crews ever hauled in was a dilapidated barge that broke loose from its moorings in 2008. “This thing was monstrous,” said DeVita. “It was like eight tons. It had been out there for so long that the wood rotted and trees started growing into this thing. It looked like a floating island.” Skimmer crews encounter dead bodies from time to time. “One guy had a bullet in his head,” said DeVita. “We don’t pick them up. We just call the cops.” But in terms of sheer volume, the biggest haul by far is plastics – plastic bottles, plastic takeout containers, plastic packaging. Plastic, plastic everywhere. “I stopped drinking my little Poland Spring,” said DeVita. “I don’t use plastic bottles anymore.”
When I asked DeVita what went wrong for the Nereid Boat Club’s ‘07 regatta – the boat club was forced to cancel the race because there was so much garbage on the river – he pointed to an unfortunate confluence of events. First there was the weather. Storms help to flush debris down the Passaic, but the autumn of 2007 was bone dry. “From mid-August until October it never rained,” recalled De Vita. “I’ve never seen the river so covered with stuff.” The skimmer boats probably could have handled the excess, if they had been able to reach the Nereid. Unfortunately, both boats were effectively out of service that weekend.
The little skimmer was at the bottom of Newark’s Weequahic Lake, the victim of a pontoon puncture it suffered during an operation to clear the lake of aquatic plants. The big skimmer was operational, but to travel upriver from its berth in Newark to the Nereid the big boat needs the drawbridges along the way to be operational too. “To get to Rutherford I need to open four bridges, “ said DeVita. “If one’s down I’m out of business.” There were bridge problems that weekend. “I couldn’t get the big boat up there.”
Dry weather, broken bridges and one pierced pontoon all had a part in canceling the Nereid’s ’07 Head of the Passaic. But the real culprits were the hundreds, or thousands, or maybe even millions of people living along or near the Passaic River who just can’t seem to secure their garbage. In fact, said Bob DeVita, the one simple thing that every one of them, that every one of us could do to affect an immediate clean up of the Passaic River is “not litter.”
All excerpts from This American River: Paradise to Superfund, Afloat on New Jersey’s Passaic are the copyrighted property of the book’s author Mary Bruno.