You Gotta Fight, For Your Right, For Clean Water:
How the Contaminated Passaic River in Newark, New Jersey Has Caused Wildlife and Low-Income Minorities to Fight for Clean Water and a Healthy Lifestyle
By Jacob Rappaport
By: Jacob Rappaport
One of the many amazing things about fishing is that it can be done in about any body of water. You can fish for either salt water fish, or fresh water fish, and you can fish in something as small as a half-mile long creek, or a body of water as big as the Pacific Ocean. Before moving to Newark, New Jersey in the Fall of 2017 for my first year at NJIT (New Jersey Institute of Technology), I had spent my whole life stuck in the small town of Blackwood, New Jersey, located 15 minutes outside of Philadelphia. I was used to fishing in lakes and ponds that were clean 95% of the time, and if I was fishing in dirty water, it was usually for a reason. Before I came up to Newark, I did not really know what it was like to have a tough time catching fish or having to worry about the fish that I was catching. Once I started fishing at spots in Newark, specifically Branch Brook Park and the Passaic River, I realized how much I was taking fishing for granted.
The first time I ever fished in the Passaic River was one of the first days of my freshmen year. I went out excited to fish, hoping to catch something different than a largemouth bass. I remember having a couple new lures that I was going to try out as well. When I walked up to the Passaic, I did not see what I was expecting to see. The water was murky with an abundance of litter floating along the surface, and along the shore there was a green slop that was running along the current of the river. Something that really stuck out to me was just how dark the water was. If you were to put your foot in the water, you would not be able to see it. I fished for about three hours that day, and walked away with zero bites, and two lost lures. That day made me wonder about the citizens of Newark and the wildlife and how they were affected by the horrible conditions throughout the Passaic River.
The Passaic River is known as one of the largest waterways in New Jersey. It is also known as one of the dirtiest waterways in all of America. When you are driving over the river you can smell “the stench of its murky waters”1. I came to the realization that this was an everyday problem for people that fished on the Passaic River all the time. I started to become more aware of the problems that filled the river that not only affected the wildlife, but the people of Newark as well, especially the low-income minority citizens located within the Ironbound District of Newark.
The Ironbound District of Newark runs alongside the South End of the Passaic River, and is notorious for its large industrial factories that helped build Newark into the blue-collar city it is today. Unlike myself, a white 22-year-old male who still lives with his parents when he is not at school, the people who live in the Ironbound must work hard for everything they have, because we have seen how minority groups have been unequally treated throughout history. The pollution that flows through the Passaic River has caused harm to both the wildlife and the low-income minority citizens of Newark, and their lack of resources/social standing has made it hard for them to make a substantial difference in the cleanup process.
Over the course of this paper, it is important to explain the history of the Passaic River to help explain how the river has turned into the toxic hot bed that we see today. The history of the river will include the companies like the Diamond Alkali Superfund site that dumped into the Passaic River, and the long-lasting problems that their dumping has caused. Another topic I will emphasize throughout this paper is the wildlife that lives within the Passaic River and how they affect fishing, both commercially and leisurely. The Ironbound community has made efforts to clean up the river, but their lack of resources has not allowed them to make the changes they genuinely want to make. Ironbound Voices is a digital repository of stories throughout the history of Newark, and in there is a snippet calling for the cleanup of toxic waste dated 1986, showing the cleanup of the Passaic River has been needed for decades. Finally, the politics surrounding the cleanup of the Passaic River raise a lot of questions that will be answered in this paper, like why Newark has allowed to the Passaic River to be contaminated for so long, and why past cleanup attempts have failed. If the City Officials have been aware of the dangers that come with the Passaic River, then why is not cleaning it up on the top of everyone’s priority list? Any questions you may have at this point in the paper will hopefully be answered and explained throughout this paper. For a brief description of this project, click on the video story below.
Passaic River Video Story
The Passaic River
The Passaic River is one of the largest rivers in all of New Jersey. It’s 80 miles long and runs throughout the Northern part of the state. When a river is 80 miles long, there are going to be a lot of different areas that run along the river. The Passaic River runs through cities like Newark, suburbs like Harrison and Kearny, old colonial towns, and even horse country. The main attraction on the Passaic River is Paterson Great Falls. Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park is home to one of the country’s most spectacular waterfalls.2 This waterfall is what makes the Passaic River the tale of two rivers. The current in the Passaic River flows from North to South, and ends by flowing into the Newark Bay, and in 1791 Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton supported a plan to harness the falls to run factories, and this began the river’s degradation.3 Over the hundreds of years since then, the water on the second half of The Great Falls (South End), has always been more contaminated than the water within the first half (North End) of the Passaic River. It’s amazing to think about the fact that the Passaic River has been degrading since 1971 and yet the problems that they saw way back then are still here today in 2021.
Paterson Great Falls, Paterson, New Jersey
As time went on, the river only got worse. The main contributor to the contamination of the Passaic River was the Diamond Alkali Co. located in the South End of the river just outside Newark, New Jersey.4 During the 1960’s when the site opened, the Vietnam War was going on, and Agent Orange was proving to be a very successful in the war. Agent Orange was a herbicide used by the United States Military to eliminate forest cover and crops from the North Vietnamese troops.5
Throughout all of this the Passaic River was still unable to get the cleanup the river deserved. The contamination throughout this river has taken such a toll on the lives of people who have done absolutely nothing to deserve this. History has shown that this river has been manipulated time and time again, and not only is the river being affected, but all of the people who live near the southern end of the river suffer immensely. Newark is the hot bed for contamination in river, and every day they’re efforts are neglected because they’re low-income minority citizens that don’t have the resources to attempt a cleanup of the river themselves. The history of the Passaic River is long and crazy, the pollution that has filled this river has caused harm to both the citizens surrounding the river, and the wildlife that lives within it.
Social Injustices and Hardships Created by the Passaic River
The Passaic River’s lower reach is a 17 mile stretch that ranges from Dundee Dam in Clifton, NJ, to the Newark Bay, and is by far, the most polluted section of the river.6 The citizens of Newark that live alongside this section of the Passaic, specifically the Ironbound, are faced with problems every single day because of the poor condition that the river has been in for so long. The citizens of the Ironbound are close-knit communities that are made up of minority groups that work hard and honest jobs to provide a living for themselves and their families.
Fishing at the South End of the Passaic River has always been extremely popular, and has been used for both business and leisure.7 The problem has and never will be about the act of fishing, it’s not illegal to fish in the Passaic River, but the contamination that has filled this specific part of the river has made it extremely hard and dangerous to fish. One of the main problems that surround the Passaic River and the people who fish there is that not many people are aware of the severity of the contaminated water and the wildlife that use the river as their habitat.
Joanna Burger ran a data analysis on the subject of awareness of the hazards within the Passaic River by ethnicity. Burger and her associates broke the analysis down into three different ethnic groups, White, Black, and Hispanic.8 90 percent of the people that were interviewed were male and 55 percent classified as white, 20 percent identified as Hispanic, and 17 percent of the interviewees were black. Burger and company asked other demographic questions like what language they were most comfortable reading, (83 percent said English, 8 percent Spanish, and 6 percent said both English and Spanish).9 The median household income for the people that were interviewed was between $25,000-$34,999, while eighteen percent of the sample’s income was below $15,000, and 11 percent said their household income was over $75,00010.
Within the first few pages of Joanna Burger’s analysis, a theme was already starting to occur, there were more white interviewers than any other ethnic group included, most of the people preferred to read in English, and there was a group of people that were outliers when it came to average household income, meaning that group of people was making way more or less than the median income, and in this specific case the group of outliers was making more money. This section of Burger’s analysis shows that the black and Hispanic populations had less people interviewed for this project, they were having to live the “American lifestyle” by having to learn to read English writing, and were making less money than the group of white people.
In a data analysis that I ran myself, it became clear that the data I was given was very comparable to the data that Joanna Burger had gathered in her data analysis. Both analyses showed that black and Hispanic people were the minority and that they had a lower average income than the white population that lives in the Ironbound District of Newark.11 One of the main differences between both of our analysis’ is that Joanna Burger’s data shows that the majority of the people they interviewed felt most comfortable reading in English, while my ACS report shows that main language spoken at home is Spanish.12 A conclusion that I have come to is that minority citizens might be scared to give their honest answers because people might look at them differently. The ACS report of the US Census shows that of the 38,904 people included, 16,363 people speak Spanish at home compared to the 7,363 that answered for English as their primary language at home.13 The low-income minority groups throughout the Ironbound District were suffering and continue to suffer due to the contamination that flows through the South End of the Passaic River, and the fact that they don’t have the power in numbers to make a change themselves, the cleanup process doesn’t seem to be coming to an end anytime soon.
Social Impact on Cleanup of the Passaic River
Passaic River Contamination via defeoassociates.com
There have been countless attempts to clean up the South End of the Passaic River. For the citizens that are aware of the contamination that fills the river, cleaning up the river has been a top priority for decades. After Diamond Alkali Co. Spent years dumping Agent Orange herbicide into the river, people started to realize that the water and soil throughout the river was taking its toll, and it was not going to get any better on its own.
As previously stated, the citizens of Newark struggled to come up with the resources necessary to clean up the river themselves so the both the citizens and the river continued to suffer. Groups have been created like the Sierra Club of New Jersey, that take pride in fighting for the citizens and wildlife that might don’t have the opportunity to fight for themselves. In an article on sierraclub.com, club Director Jeff Tittel stated that “The EPA needs to do their job and protect the communities from this contamination. This contamination has been posing risks to both human health, marine ecosystem, and the community for far too long.”14 Something that is really cool about the Sierra Club is that they used to be partnered with the Citizens Advisory Group (CAD) who work for the citizens and constantly fight for full removal of the contamination and try and raise awareness for better public health and a better environment in general.15
Efforts like this make all the difference in the world for the people that are directly affected by the Passaic River every day. Throughout this paper the problem has been that the low-income minority citizen of Newark hasn’t been able to do enough to make a massive change in the cleanup effort of the Passaic River, but these organizations like CAD and the Sierra club are a voice for the people that don’t have one.
There have been other efforts made to try and make the Passaic River cleaner and more appealing to everyone, whether that’s the citizens of Newark, Fishermen who are coming into to the city, or just people driving past the city along one of the many major highways like the New Jersey Turnpike or McCarter Highway which runs right through the heart of the Ironbound and parallel to the Passaic River. On the other hand, Major companies have gone back and forth trying to decide who’s going to pay for the cleanup.
An article came out in December of 2018 published by the Wall Street Journal titled “Agent Orange’s Other Legacy- a $12 Billion Cleanup and a Fight Over Who Pays”.16 Authors Peg Brinkley and Gretchen Morgenson explain the contamination that has overflowed the Passaic River, and that no one wants to take blame for the dumping of dioxins into the river and pay for it. Companies such as YPF SA, an Argentine state oil company who took over the original Agent Orange site in 1995, ran themselves bankrupt and said they weren’t responsible for covering the cost of the cleanup because they knew they were being backed by the U.S. bankruptcy system.17 For companies to not want to pay find a way to right their wrongs and find a way to pay for the cleanup of the river, they’re fighting each other to see who can get out of paying for the cleanup! These companies are so money hungry that they do not even realize how many lives they’d be improving, and what they would be doing for the wildlife and their ecosystems. Off the record, I firmly believe that cleaning up the Passaic River would improve every aspect of life around Newark, New Jersey, but the citizens can’t do it all by themselves, and these big companies like YPF that sit along the river need to come together and do what is right and not stop until the job is complete.
Wildlife Throughout the Passaic River
To this point in the paper, the focus has been on the low-income minority citizens that live in the Ironbound District of Newark and how they have been negatively affected by the Passaic River for so long and why they haven’t been able to clean up the contamination. Agent Orange was introduced as well and the impact it has made on the river itself, but in my introduction, I explained my love for fishing and marine wildlife in general for being the main reason as to why I chose the Passaic River as my topic site. The wildlife throughout the South End of the Passaic River has suffered just as much, if not more than anything or anyone else that is affected by the contamination in the river.
What is so amazing about the Passaic River is that the wildlife north of the Paterson Great Falls do not have to deal with the same conditions that the wildlife on the South End have to deal with. Agent Orange, the herbicide that was introduced earlier, has always been the biggest contaminant that fills the Passaic River. Yes, we know Agent Orange is extremely dangerous, but what chemicals make it life threatening to the wildlife that live in the Passaic? A by-product of the manufacturing process to create Agent Orange was known as 2,3,7,8-TCDD, better known as dioxin, an extremely toxic chemical.18 Other chemicals such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), metals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and pesticides were also found in the sediment in the Lower Passaic River.19 Dioxin, the most harmful substance that fills the soil of the Passaic River, causes extreme damage to the ecosystem. There have been fish that have been tracked all the way down to Florida that have been affected by the dioxin throughout the South End of the river.20 Beautiful species of fish and shellfish are losing their homes and dying because of these horrendous contaminants that fill the bed of the Passaic River, and for the longest time the future of wildlife in the Passaic River was in question.
The story on the North End of the Passaic River is quite different. Companies like the Hackettstown State Fish Hatchery have formed to help keep the wildlife in the Passaic River as clean and healthy as possible.21The way the fish hatchery works is a group of people go out to surrounding bodies of water, catch small, clean pike, and bring them back to let them grow so they can then dump them into the North End of the Passaic so they can swim freely and create more healthy fish for the future.22The goal is not to wash out all of the contaminated fish, but to stock the river with new fish that are going to help grow the population during bedding season, so the contaminated fish will be outnumbered. Fishing in the northern portion of the Passaic River has become much more enjoyable than fishing in the 17-mile stretches of the Lower Passaic River that is still way to contaminated to stock healthy fish. Stocking that specific section of the river would just result in the fish becoming contaminated, there is no fish stronger than the contaminants embedded at the bottom of the river, and it has been a problem for far too long.
Ron Jacobsen with Brookstock Pike
Impact made by Political Groups
The last section of this project is going to focus on the impact made by politician and their parties regarding the cleanup of the Passaic River. One of the largest impacts’ politicians have made throughout the cleanup process has been creating the Lower Passaic Urban Waters Partnership. The LPR UWFP is a group of federal and state agencies, municipalities, and community-based organizations trying to expedite the cleanup and restoration of the Lower Passaic River.23One of the amazing things about this group is that they put the communities that suffer from the Lower Passaic River first. They allow the citizens of Newark the opportunity to have their voices heard because they cannot do it on their own. The whole argument behind this paper is that the low-income minority groups that live throughout the Ironbound District of Newark continuously suffer from the Passaic River because they do not have the resources to make any substantial changes, but groups like the Lower Passaic Urban Waters Partnership gives me hope that one day the Passaic River will be fully rid of all the contaminants that we know about today.
For as good as the LPR UWFP is, we all know how sly and greedy politicians can be. New Jersey Senator Corey Booker once stated “Please understand that there should be yellow crime-scene tape around the Passaic River right now.”24 While Booker stated that, the EPA announced a cleanup plan to remove 3.5 million cubic yards of toxic sediment from the waterway over the span of ten years.25Planning to run a project of this importance over ten years makes it seem like cleaning up the river isn’t the absolute top priority, yet Cory Booker is calling the Passaic River a crime scene. It seems like the politicians are doing good by recognizing the problems and dumping a bunch of money into projects to clean up the river, yet there never seems to be any progress made. After every attempted cleanup, someone in a suit and tie comes out saying” the job is not done yet” or” there are still years to go before the river will be completely restored.
Luckily for these politicians and their parties, the citizens of Newark are just happy to see some progress made, like Sal Banks, 50, a lifelong resident of Newark understands that the cleanup costs money, but also notes that the health of people and the wildlife are more important than any sum of money.26Politicians across North Jersey have helped immensely with the cleanup process of the Passaic River, but there is always more work to be done. These issues have been going on for far too long, and the people of Newark want to see these problems gone no matter what the cost, and I think the state of New Jersey and its leaders should use that as fuel to continue to clean up the river.
The home stretch, throughout this project you have learned about my own personal experiences regarding the Passaic River, a brief history of the Passaic River and its main issues, both the social injustices and hardships caused by the river, and the impact the citizens of Newark has had on the cleanup process even with the little resources they had and continue to have. The wildlife throughout the Passaic River, and the efforts that have been made to make the Passaic River a better place to live for the fish and shellfish that suffer every day, and lastly the impact politicians have made, both positively and negatively.
After analyzing general demographics like ethnic groups and how the quality of both ends of the river differ, I still stand by my original argument that the low-income minority citizens that live in the Ironbound District of Newark take the brunt of the contamination throughout the Lower End of the Passaic River because they don’t have the resources or social standing to make the necessary changes themselves. I had some doubts about this argument holding any validity, but while writing this paper I realized that the community of the Ironbound simply does not have a loud enough voice when it comes to the topic of the Passaic River. Sure, the State of New Jersey has dumped a ton of money into the cleanup process, but those white-collar individuals do not face the everyday struggle that these people face. Politicians do not have to worry about fishing for food, and then having to fear whether or not the fish is going to make you sick. The Suits also do not have to worry about breathing in the pollution that comes from all of the toxins that were dumped into the river over a half century ago, and they definitely don’t have to worry about making a home underneath the surface of the river like the groups of wildlife that do call the Passaic River home.
There is so much that still has to be done to help restore the Lower End of the Passaic River to what it was before Diamond Alkali Co. Started dumping Agent Orange during the Vietnam War in the 1960’s. It can be something as little as picking up trash alongside the river when you’re fishing or walking along a trail, or as big as joining a group that supports community efforts. This paper has shown me that there is always so much more than what meets the eye. Someone driving along the Passaic River might think the river is just a product of its environment, but in reality, the companies that dumped into the river never gave it a chance to succeed, and sadly the citizens of Newark have to bear it. I hope you learned a thing or two throughout this project because I know that going through this research has been an eye-opening experience, and I pray that I am still here to one day see the Passaic River in its full glory.
- Noah Remnick and Rick Rojas “Toxic Passaic River to Get $1.38 Billion Cleanup Over 10 Years” New York Times, March 4, 2016. https://www-nytimes-com.libdb.njit.edu:8443/2016/03/05/nyregion/toxic-passaic-river-to-get-1-38-billion-cleanup-over-10-years.html
- Paterson Great Falls, National Parks Conservation Association. Est. 2011. https://www.npca.org/parks/paterson-great-falls-national-historical-park?gclid=Cj0KCQjwsOEBhCkARIsAPhOkIa2et7gSjkeJ4nSyY0QdrhyzAzGfEgm380HioV07jkhW0I6C426jjcaAqw8EALw_wcB
- Art Silverman, “The Truth About That Other Jersey Shore”, NRP Radio. November 19, 2010. https://www.npr.org/2010/11/19/131167397/the-dirty-truth-about-that-other-jersey-shore
- Sharon Adarlo, “’Peaceful Valley’: Passaic River is Reborn in New Jersey”. Aljazeera America, May 25, 2015. http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/5/25/passaic-river-new-jersey.html
- History.com Editors, “Agent Orange,” A&E Television Networks, August 2, 2011. https://www.history.com/topics/vietnam-war/agent-orange-1
- Urban Waters Partnership, “Urban Waters and the Passaic River/Newark (New Jersey), United States Environmental Protection Agency. December 20, 2018. https://www.epa.gov/urbanwaterspartners/urban-waters-and-passaic-rivernewark-new-jersey
- Joanna Burger, K. Pflugh, L. Lurig, L. Von Hagen, and S. Von Hagen. “Fishing in Urban New Jersey: Ethnicity Affects Information Sources, Perception, and Compliance.” Risk Analysis, April 19, 1999. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.1999.tb00401.x
- ”EJScreen ACS Report 2018: Newark Ironbound” (Demographics Reports U.S. Environmental Protection Agency). https://ejscreen.epa.gov/mapper/demogreportpdf.aspx?report=acs2018
- Quote from Jeff Tittel, Director of Sierra Club New Jersey. ” Passaic River Cleanup Announced: Toxic Nightmare Continues” Sierra Club of New Jersey, March 4, 2016. https://www.sierraclub.org/new-jersey/press-releases/0627
- Peg Brickley and Gretchen Morgenson,” Agent Orange’s Other Legacy- a $12 Billion Cleanup and a Fight over Who Pays”, Wall Street Journal, December 3, 2018. https://www.wsj.com/articles/agent-oranges-other-legacya-12-billion-cleanup-and-a-fight-over-who-pays-1543850435Laws & Regulations
- ” Diamond Alkali Co. Newark, NJ Cleanup Activities”. Environmental Protection Agency. https://cumulis.epa.gov/supercpad/SiteProfiles/index.cfm?fuseaction=second.Cleanup&id=0200613#Done
- Jeff Tittel,” Passaic River Cleanup Announced: Toxic Nightmare Continues” Sierra Club of New Jersey, March 4, 2016. https://www.sierraclub.org/new-jersey/press-releases/0627
- Ron Jacobsen,” Passaic River Pike”, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, February 14, 2013
- Urban Waters Partnership,” Urban Waters and the Passaic River/Newark (New Jersey), EPA, Last Updated December 20, 2018
- Noah Remnick and Rick Rojas,” Toxic Passaic River to Get $1.38 Billion Cleanup Over 10 Years” New York Times, March 4, 2016. https://www-nytimes-com.libdb.njit.edu:8443/2016/03/05/nyregion/toxic-passaic-river-to-get-1-38-billion-cleanup-over-10-years.html