Profile: The Man Who Works To Make the Hackensack River Clean and Clear

Scott Gurian | October 28, 2015 | Profiles
Part ‘first responder for the river,’ and part environmental activist, teacher, and cheerleader, Captain Bill Sheehan says restoring the Hackensack is a 24/7 job

Bill Sheehan, executive director of Hackensack Riverkeeper
Who he is: Executive director of Hackensack Riverkeeper — a local branch of the international Waterkeeper Alliance — Sheehan is effectively chief environmental spokesperson for the river and
the surrounding Meadowlands region.

Age: 56

Hometown: Secaucus

What he does: Sheehan says his group’s mission is to protect, preserve, and restore the natural, living, and recreational resources of the river by defending them from development, contamination, and other threats.

“My name goes on every lawsuit as a plaintiff, along with the organization, if we were getting ready to sue a polluter,” he said.

“A big part of our job is selling the river back to the community as a natural resource and a recreational amenity,” he added, touting his group’s eco-cruises, as well as canoe and kayak rentals and educational programs for schoolchildren.

“When I started back in 1997, most people had basically turned their backs on the river. It took a lot of outreach and coordination to get people to understand that this river was getting better and that the only way it’s going to continue to get better is constant vigilance.”

Why people should care: “It’s a river that was responsible for the growth of Bergen County,” Sheehan explained, calling it a “commercial highway” for agriculture and industry during colonial times.

He also said that the Meadowlands provide a huge wildlife habitat in the heart of the most densely populated part of the most densely populate state. It’s home to more than 265 species of birds and 65 species of marine life, including striped bass as large as 40 pounds.

Highlights of his work: Over the years, Hackensack Riverkeeper has been instrumental in preventing over 12,000 acres of the New Jersey Meadowlands and the Hackensack River watershed from being destroyed. This includes its work around the American Dream (née Xanadu) retail and entertainment complex, which was originally slated to be built on previously undeveloped wetlands. Through legal action, they also successfully petitioned the state to conserve thousands of acres of land in upper Bergen County, preventing stopping United Water from selling it off.

“We did what a lot of people thought in the beginning was going to be an impossible task,” Sheehan said, referring to all his group has been able to accomplish. In many cases, he said, “there was a lot of economic pressure, a lot of pressure coming from the real-estate market, the developers, and even the unions that do the building. Not every project is a bad project. It’s just that oftentimes, it’s a bad location. So rather than chase them out of the state, we worked with developers to find reasonable redevelopment areas, places where they could do their job, improve the economy, and put people to work, and at the same time, it would have very little if any impact on the surrounding wetlands and watershed.”

How he got started: Sheehan grew up in Secaucus as the son of a barge captain, so he spent a lot of time around the water. After graduating high school, he was a professional drummer and then had a stint as a taxi dispatcher, but after work, he’d always go fishing whenever he could. Eventually, he bought a boat, and developed a growing interest in and awareness of some of the environmental issues affecting the river.

After NY/NJ Baykeeper was founded in the early 1990s, Sheehan began volunteering to help patrol the waters from polluters and other threats, but he soon realized that the Hackensack River needed its own, fulltime advocate, so he got together with some friends and founded his group.

Current state of the Hackensack River: As a result of new environmental laws, better sewage treatment practices, and less industry in the area, the water quality of the river has improved markedly over the past few decades. Still, toxins resting in the riverbed continue to work their way up through the food chain, posing a potential health hazard to recreational fishers as well as the rest of the ecosystem.

“I would say from where it was in the 1960s and ‘70s, the river is probably 70 to 80 percent recovered, but it’s going to take a lot of hard work by agencies, municipalities, companies, and advocates like Riverkeeper to make sure that it continues to improve,” Sheehan said. “My organization’s mission now is to bring the river back up to the next level, which would be where we no longer have to advise people not the eat the fish they catch, and people can have primary contact with it without fear that contact is going to lead to them getting sick in some way. And we’re not there yet.”

Biggest issue facing the river today: “The Clean Water Act was passed in 1972 along with several other environmental laws,” Sheehan said. “There have been generations of people that have been born and are now grown up and having their own children that have directly benefited from the Clean Water Act without even knowing it, so when they look at the river and see eagles flying overhead and striped bass being pulled out and people out kayaking, they say, ‘Isn’t this grand?’ They have no concept of what would happen if we rolled back these laws. So one of the biggest threats to my river is the conscious effort by certain factions in Congress and within the state of New Jersey that would like to roll back environmental laws. Once you start on that slippery slope, it’s only a matter of time before we’re back to dumping raw sewage into the river and setting civilization back into the dark ages.”

Thoughts on the Rebuild by Design plan for the Meadowlands: In June of last year, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development capped off an engineering competition by awarding $150 million to a project proposed by MIT and two European design firms to restore wetlands in the Meadowlands and build a berm to reduce flooding in nearby communities. While residents in places like Little Ferry and Moonachie — which were deluged by floodwaters during Sandy — were generally happy with the announcement — Sheehan said he’s cynical about the whole thing.

“I don’t believe that anything they’re going to do is going to help,” he said. “I do believe that it’s going to cost a lot of money. There’s a lot of political equity in telling people that you’re ‘fixing the river’ to protect their homes and their wellbeing.”

Sheehan fears that floodwalls would provide residents with a false sense of security and that New Jersey risks repeating the example of New Orleans, with its dikes and levees that effectively cut the city off from the river and didn’t end up protecting it during Hurricane Katrina. Walling off the river, he argues, would also essentially turn the Hackensack into nothing more than a giant storm drain to funnel water out to the ocean.

“I’ll be damned if I’m going to stand by and let someone create that here on the East Coast,” he said. “That’s not going to happen on my watch.”

Reason for hope: Between his boat tours and paddle centers, Sheehan says his group has been successful at building a constituency that will stand up to protect the Hackensack River and the Meadowlands.

“When these big battles that we’re engaged with come to a head,” he said, “we have literally thousands of people that are willing to put their name on the line, sign petitions, go to meetings, write letters, send in comments to the various agencies.”

Personal: As the Hackensack Riverkeeper, Sheehen says he’s basically on call 24/7.

“I call it a job, but it’s really a mission,” he said, comparing his role to that of a first responder for the river. “If there’s a spill, you’ve got to get there to document it and make sure that the agencies respond correctly and that the responsible parties are handling the cleanup. If you’re not there, then you’re not a riverkeeper.”

While he no longer plays in a band, Sheehan does enjoy his large music collection, which includes classic rock, swamp rock, and standards like big-band music and Sinatra. He says it provides the perfect soundtrack as he pilots his boat and makes his work all the more enjoyable.
“Where else are you going to find a job in this climate that gets you out on the water 150 days a year?” he asked.