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The Dirty Truth About That Other Jersey Shore

Shortly after America's founding, New Jersey's Passaic River became a cradle of the nation's fledgling manufacturing industry. For that, it has paid dearly.

The 90-mile river faces one of the toughest environmental cleanup efforts in the country. Layers of pollutants sit at the bottom of the lower end of the river. It's predicted to take years to rid the Passaic of dangerous chemicals — and it will cost billions.

How did this happen?

I grew up in Livingston, N.J., in the 1960s. In the suburbs where I lived, the river didn't seem so ugly. The factories and damns were downstream. As an adult, I had the urge to find out how an innocent river became a poisoned waterway.

The Pristine Passaic

On a damp Sunday afternoon, I embarked on river journey with guide Wheeler Antabanez, who has posted YouTube videos of his canoe trips on the Passaic and has written about it in the magazine Weird NJ.

Author Mary Bruno says the Passaic gradually became incapable of naturally cleansing what humans threw into it. The result was what she calls the making of 'a toilet.' ... There's an official ban on eating fish from the lower 17 miles of the river. And most everybody I talked to was even afraid of touching the water.

In the upper portions of the Passaic, the river passes through the hills of historic Morris County. It could be northern New England, with remnants of America's colonial past in view. After a while, the Passaic weaves through horse country in Bernardsville, where Jackie Kennedy once rode her ponies.

But even here, signs of human development interrupt the idyll. Parking lots and roads contribute to erosion and poisoning of the river. Dangling pipes from storm drains funnel runoff into its tributaries. A few more miles and the river sneaks behind strip malls and homes. The Passaic seems more purposeful now, clearly defined in its deeper channel and taking on salt, oil, lawn chemicals.

We get on the river farther downstream, at the Great Swamp Wildlife Preserve, created in the 1960s after locals rallied to protect the wetland from becoming a paved-over jetport. As Antabanez and I paddle in the Great Swamp, we find ourselves gliding through channels wide enough to take seriously. And for a moment, I glimpse what the earliest settlers and Native Americans must have seen — what today seems almost impossible: a spot where the Passaic River is charming.

The Great Fall(s)

The charm doesn't last long. Emerging from the preserve, the river enters the heart of suburbia. These are the places I knew growing up. Soon, the world of industry and commerce closes in on the Passaic. Old U.S. highways cross over it; trucks roar down the interstates.

The Passaic takes the long route from where it begins. If you followed the water, you'd have to travel some 90 miles. But if you hopped from start to finish in a straight line, you'd be going only 30 miles. Mountains block the Passaic, but it finds a devious path around them eventually.

And when it does, it drops suddenly.

No canoe is going to get us over the Great Falls of the Passaic, at least not in one piece. The Passaic cuts through the Watchung Mountains and drops more than 70 feet into a narrow cataract between walls of rock. The falls are surprising, beautiful and powerful.

It was that power that led directly to the river's degradation. In 1791, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton supported a plan to harness the falls to run factories. The Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures was Hamilton's attempt to turn America from a farming society into an industrial one.

Antabanez and I disembark to wander around where this all happened: the city of Paterson.

The Makings Of A 'Toilet' River

Paterson was the Silicon Valley of the 1800s. Lots of entrepreneurs thrived there. The nation came to depend on Paterson for locomotives, silk and cotton. The first Colt revolvers were made there. John Holland perfected the first motorized submarines in the Passaic River at Paterson.

All of this manufacturing and industry created an attitude in New Jersey that it was OK to dump waste into the Passaic. That worked for decades, because a river can flush away a certain small portion of sewage and gunk. But that works only so long.

While Paterson was polluting the Passaic from midway along the river, New Jersey's largest city, Newark, was doing the same from the final miles of the river.

In between the two cities, the river has absorbed two centuries of human waste, debris, industrial junk.

For a long time, the river followed what writer Mary Bruno says is the magic of "the solution to pollution is dilution." Bruno has an unpublished tome about the river called From Paradise to Superfund Site. She grew up along the lower river and used her skills as a writer and scientist to dig deeply into the step-by-step degradation process that ruined the Passaic.

Bruno says the Passaic gradually became incapable of naturally cleansing what humans threw into it. The result was what she calls the making of "a toilet." Like many other people, Bruno grew up with warnings from adults to stay away from the Passaic.

There's an official ban on eating fish from the lower 17 miles of the river. And most everybody I talked to was even afraid of touching the water.

The members of the Nereid Rowing Club — in the Passaic River town of Rutherford, below Paterson — use the river every day to practice racing. High school teams do so, too. But everyone is sure to keep his mouth closed.

The Best Intentions Can Run Amok

We get back on the river itself on a bigger boat at Newark. Capt. Billy Sheehan is part of a national group called The Riverkeepers. He's out to reclaim the Passaic and its neighboring river, the Hackensack.

We take a cruise up and down the Passaic from where it enters Newark Bay to the downtown section of the city. Today, Newark's pollution comes in forms Alexander Hamilton couldn't have dreamed of: paint plants, meat-rendering factories and a plant that made the defoliant Agent Orange.

Some pollution experts say if you scrape away one layer of poison in the river, you find another. Deadly dioxin covers a layer of mercury. Dig deeper and you find polychlorinated biphenyls — PCBs — which were once used as coolants and insulating fluids.

The job is enormous. It's not even clear that disturbing some of the garbage wouldn't be worse than letting it stay buried under dirt and sand and water. The work goes on, but it can last decades — or might never be done.

My river journey revealed a truth about dreamers. I learned that the best intentions can run amok, given enough time. Hamilton had the extraordinary vision to see the potential of harnessing water power. But even this brilliant Founding Father had only limited foresight.

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Corrected: November 29, 2010 at 9:00 PM PST
We incorrectly attributed an assertion near the end of this piece to the Environmental Protection Agency's John Senn. He did not suggest that the cleanup work "can last decades — or might never be done."
Art Silverman has been with NPR since 1978. He came to NPR after working for six years at a daily newspaper in Claremont, New Hampshire.