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Summer Reading: New Books With a Jersey Connection -- 'An American River'

I strained to picture the scene that Andy was describing. Like so much wild habitat in New Jersey, the wetlands that surround Newark Bay have been manhandled over time. In most places their transformation is so complete that discerning the natural features of the landscape is an exercise in extreme imagination. The once sinuous outline of Newark Bay, scalloped by coves and inlets and the mouths of its tidal rivers and creeks, is now ruler straight thanks to a century-long parade of large-scale public and private development projects. “You can see how geometric the shore- line is,” said Andy, tapping the chart. “These are big fills.”

The transformation of the Newark Meadows began in 1914 when the city of Newark, hungry for real estate, began reclaiming the marshland along the western shore of Newark Bay. Port Newark came first. The city dredged a mile-long shipping channel in the bay. They mixed the dredgings with garbage and ash and heaped the malodorous blend on top of the salt marsh until the landfill was firm enough to support the docks and warehouses that followed. By 1974, the Newark Meadows had completely disappeared, buried beneath the Port Newark/Elizabeth Marine Terminal, the Newark Liberty International Airport and the New Jersey Turnpike. Similar landfill operations soon claimed much of the eastern shore of Newark Bay too. Stands of white fuel storage tanks now occupy acres of former salt marsh in Bayonne. Welcome to the Garden State.

This massive industrial footprint is the first impression that most visitors to the state will have, certainly the millions who arrive and depart by way of Newark airport. And it’s a lasting impression. The industrialization of the Newark Bay marshland has done more to stereotype New Jersey than all the jokes about big hair and the Mob. Newark Airport, Port Elizabeth, the New Jersey Turnpike and the Bayonne and Elizabeth fuel tanks are, alas, the icons of my home state.

My fellow Aqua Patio passengers seemed unfazed by the industrial sights and smells. Most were there on business. The environmental engineers were reconnoitering the Passaic for a client who had just bought riverfront property; the scientists were exploring the Passaic, Hackensack and Hudson River estuaries for a larger survey of New York Harbor; the lawyers were compiling an inventory of structures and businesses along the river. Janice and Martin were just looking for something interesting to do on a pleasant autumn afternoon. “Marty loves to be out on the water,” Janice told me. The couple read about the Baykeeper tours in the newspaper, and drove out from their home in Manhattan.

They couldn’t have picked a better day. The sky was a cloudless blue, the temperature a delightful 75 degrees. It was the kind of Indian summer evening that can make even the Passaic River look good. And it did look good. The water was actually blue. Its surface, miraculously free of debris, rippled and sparkled with every breeze. The sun was slipping lower in the sky. Three fingers from the horizon. Now two. The light was sharp and golden. We were sailing through honey.

We passed abandoned factories and rotting docks on the Newark side of the river, and a junkyard with towers of pancaked sedans, and acres of red and blue shipping containers stacked seven high. Backlit and spectral, each eyesore possessed its own odd beauty. They recalled a vanished era, the mid-19th century, when Newark was a king of U.S. manufacturing and the banks of the Passaic teemed with commerce.

About three miles upriver, just north of the Benjamin Moore paint factory, we came to the Diamond Shamrock Superfund site. The address, 80 Lister Avenue, is on the far eastern edge of Newark, in the city’s historic Ironbound neighborhood. Bill Sheehan maneuvered the boat in closer to shore, and shifted the engine into neutral. Most of the passengers stood— to take pictures, pay respects. Diamond isn’t the only contaminated site along the Passaic, but it is by far the most notorious. For Passaic River advocates, 80 Lister Avenue is a battle cry.

From 1951 to 1983, the Diamond Shamrock plant manufactured pesticides and weed killers and close to a million gallons of Agent Orange, the defoliant that U.S. military aircraft sprayed onto the jungles of South Vietnam during the war. The process of making Agent Orange generated huge quantities of dioxin, a poisonous by-product that remains the most carcinogenic substance known to man. Diamond’s dioxin poisoned its workers, its plant site, the surrounding neighborhood and the river too. We had been right to be afraid of the Passaic.

The remains of the Diamond Shamrock plant had been entombed within the gray concrete mound we were floating past. It was the high- light of the tour. Roughly eight feet high and about the size of a foot- ball field, the mound was secured behind a concrete bulkhead and a steel fence, sealed with multiple layers of clay, and capped with concrete and an impermeable geofabric membrane. Within this waterproof six-acre grave lie the remains of the deconstructed Diamond factory buildings and 932 shipping containers filled with 66,000 cubic yards of dioxin-contaminated dirt, dust and debris that environmental cleanup crews literally vacuumed from the streets, stores, schools, houses, playgrounds and empty lots near the Lister Avenue property.

A few thousand years from now, said Bill Sheehan, archeologists studying this site will conclude that the people of the late 20th century “built monuments to their pollution the way the ancient Egyptians built monuments to their pharaohs.” With that, he kicked the engine back in gear and we continued slowly upstream. The skyline of downtown Newark was just ahead. Late afternoon sunlight lasered off the smoked glass facade of the FBI’s new riverside tower.

“How come there are no other boats on the river?” asked Janice. Her face was hidden beneath the peak of her white cotton cap, which was pulled low against the harsh sun. It was a good question, direct and obvious, and it cut to the heart of things. Even the poison mound, and the Mad Max landscape and the occasional doomsday commentary from Andy and Bill hadn’t managed to spoil the simple joy of being out on the water.

My mother would have liked this boat ride. She always dreamed of living by the water. Whenever she would mention this, my father would tease her: “You do!” he’d say. “You live by the Passaic.”

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