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Raritan River Impaired by Numerous Toxins

New Brunswick's Most Important Body of Water Makes List of Endangered Waterways
The Rutgers Crew team during afternoon practice. Brannon Gerling

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—The Environmental Protection Agency's last public report in 2010 found over 16 noxious chemicals and solids infecting the section of the Raritan River that borders New Brunswick.

Three of those chemicals--arsenic, benzopyrene, and the pesticide heptachlor epoxide--have the potential to affect the drinking water supply.

Just a few feet away from the Raritan, the Delaware & Raritan Canal is the primary source of drinking water for New Brunswick, Milltown, and parts of Franklin Township.

The city has also been dealing with the aftermath of problems at its water treatment plant that only came to light after a three-year coverup was exposed by the Department of Environmental Protection last fall.

City officials quickly admitted that since 2010, the New Brunswick Water Utility repeatedly neglected to perform water quality tests and alert the public to water that did not meet standards.

Water issues have been on the radar, and meeting agendas, of the New Brunswick Environmental Commission.

The mayorally-appointed commission said at last night's meeting that it is organizing a public tour of the city's Water Treatment Plant, on either July 17 or 23, pending approval from Water Utility Director Frank Marascia.

The group also discussed the development of community-based efforts to monitor the quality of water in the Raritan and its tributaries.  Community members interested in participating in visual assessments and other tests of the river's health are encouraged to contact Heather Fenyk at hfenyk@gmail.com.

The section of the Raritan in New Brunswick is both unique and problematic said Fenyk, a member of the commission, because it sits at the border where the waters become tidal and begin to blend freshwater and saltwater as the river feeds into the Raritan Bay.

Fenyk said the purpose of the quality monitoring initiative was to develop a "baseline" of data that could help determine what activities are safe in the Raritan, such as fishing or swimming.

"We have a general sense that it's okay to boat," Fenyk said, adding that the government could not say for sure whether folks should wash their hands after being exposed the river's water.

Richie Simon’s has been a member of the Raritan Boat Club since 1975.

“When I joined the club there was nothing. Everything was dead. Now you got crabs, eels, stripers, migrating bluefish—it’s all coming back.”

But, does he eat the fish? “I eat the fish—not everyday. And where else can you have a beer and look on the River?” he said lounging with his face up against the sun.

“I wouldn’t say it’s completely dead, but it’s not good,” Rutgers University's Lisa Rodenburg told NBToday recently during a visit to the Environmental Science Building.

“The drinking water should be fine, but it’s the Raritan that’s the problem.”

Rodenburg said that the Raritan is now on the ‘303(d) list’ of impaired and threatened waters in New Jersey and has pressing amounts of mercury and arsenic running through its veins.

New Jersey produces great masses of chemicals, runs the densest system of highways and railways, even hosted the world’s first submarine ride, but also sports the highest percentage of impervious surfaces in the country, 12.1%. These surfaces--such as roofs, roads, and parking lots--can make runoff a sweeping problem as well.

Toxic lawn fertilizers, roof sediment collected from tainted air from emissions and Ohio's coal pollution, oil and gas drips, and Canadian geese are a few contenders for the New Jersey's biggest pollutants.

“Geese live for 26 years on average and create 10 pounds of feces weekly,” Rutgers University’s Chris Obropta told New Brunswick Today. 

Obropta has a team and one of their major campaigns is teaching homeowners, and basically anyone who will listen, the benefits of rain gardens, absorbent surfaces, and disconnecting gutters so rain can be soaked up by grass and plants instead of delivering toxic chemicals and residue to local rivers. 

Then, of course, there are the corporations and their lawyers, and the pointing of fingers and lack of environmental funding to provide proper evidence.

“There are good corporate citizens and bad ones,” Rodenburg explained. “National Lead Co. [aka NL Industries] in Sayreville created a nightmare site.”

So did American Cyanamid just upriver in Bridgewater, whose location is now a federal ‘Superfund’ site, requiring long-term cleanup of hazardous material.

That site spewed benzene into the Raritan as recently as a year ago.

New Jersey is home to the most Superfund sites, 112 contaminated locations on top of the 18,000 to 20,000 other contaminated sites not qualifying for federal dollars.

“Most people think that a river is just something they drive over,” said Rodenburg. “The public needs to know that it’s their river and they too have a responsibility to manage it.”

But the state government's Department of Environmental Protection has dropped the ball, handing over many of its traditional responsbilities to the private sector in recent years.

“The State DEP is totally broke,” said Rodenburg.

Governor Chris Chrisite’s policies shrug off urgent environmental issues under the pretext that ‘New Jersey’s broke’. As a result, river maintenance has been privatized to Licensed Site Remediation Professionals (LSRP's) and, in many cases, to the corporations that inherited or caused the locational hazards in the first place.

But obvious problems herein arise: responsibilities are slid over to commercial interests while ecosystems become site-packaged instead of treated like vital members of larger eco-communities that synergetically work together.

“I think the animal community is short-changed,” said Rodenburg. “The Raritan should be chockfull of clams, worms; there used to be river otters but they now have no food chain.”

When asked if she would consider swimming in the Raritan, she readily declined.

“But the Raritan should be a beautiful place to swim, fish, and canoe,” Obropta agrees.

“People aren’t that interested in the River because they don’t get to use it. It’s a huge missed opportunity.”

“There could be a river walk, like in San Antonio, and nice restaurants that overlook the River. We’re not building anything here anymore: we’re about tourism, and this could drive the local economy.”

Unknown causes of the pollution are still being investigated, but since the DEP has become a ‘paper tiger’ and the financial burden of cleaning has been pushed onto taxpayers, many polluting companies drag out cleanups, do nothing at all, or blatantly lie about their environmental responsibilities. 

“I know people don’t tend to like big government,” said Obropta, “but it needs to step in and clean this stuff up.”