Today’s guest post comes to us from David Wheeler, Director of Operations for Edison Wetlands Association, a longtime Dodge grantee who is “dedicated to protecting human health and the environment through conservation and the cleanup of hazardous waste sites.” We are continually impressed by their tireless efforts on behalf of New Jerseyans to clean up toxic sites, while also mobilizing community support, and leveraging remediation funding sources.
By David Wheeler
All thy wat’ry face
Reflected with a purer grace
Thy many turnings through the trees
Thy bitter journey to the seas
Thou Queen of Rivers, Raritan!
English poet John Davis wrote his tribute to the longest river solely in New Jersey back in 1806, long before the Raritan River became one of the most polluted rivers in the United States. The stretch from Bridgewater down to the Raritan’s mouth at Sayreville and Perth Amboy was dubbed the “Chemical Belt,” serving as a thoroughfare for chemical plants, landfill dumpers, the United States Army’s Raritan Arsenal, and coal barges shipping Pennsyvania’s coal to New York City through the Delaware & Raritan Canal.
Growing up, my experience with the Raritan River was limited to driving over the Garden State Parkway’s Driscoll Bridge – greeted by Sayreville’s glowing lagoons and the accompanying noxious stench. Many of the area’s largest industrial plants have moved on, but the toxic legacy remained strong. Bob Spiegel founded the nonprofit Edison Wetlands Association (EWA) in 1989 to fight for the cleanups of the Raritan’s worst toxic sites. Without EWA’s active leadership, many of these sites would go decades without any real remediation, impacting the environment and potentially human health all the while. Yet the Raritan is now a river deep into its natural recovery from a century of industrial abuse.
Bob Spiegel, Executive Director, Edison Wetlands Association
In a royal rags-to-riches comeback worthy of New Jersey’s Queen of Rivers, many of those long-forsaken landfills are being transformed into ecologically valuable habitat. At Edison Landfill, EWA worked with Conservation Resources, Inc., the State of New Jersey’s Natural Resource Damages, and Edison Township to create a public walkway trail with kiosks, a footbridge and gazebo, swallow nest boxes, and native butterfly gardens along the Edison Landfill riverfront. Last year, the Raritan RiverWalk triumphantly opened with a ribbon-cutting ceremony commemorating the first extended public access ever on Edison’s seven miles of Raritan Riverfront
From the top of Edison Landfill on a site tour last week, visitors spotted a great horned owl, wild turkey, common yellowthroats, and a garter snake. Past forays have encountered bald eagles, box turtles, northern harriers, bobolinks, and ring-necked pheasants thriving along this vantage point over an oxbow bend in the Raritan that creates a scene worthy of the Everglades river of grass. It is a gorgeous view, especially in the largely flat terrain of Middlesex County.
Baby snapping turtle
The reason this vista offers such elevation changes is, of course, those manmade “mountains” of Edgeboro Landfill, Kin-Buc Landfill Superfund Site, and ILR Landfill.
“Behold the ‘Valley of the Dumps,’” says Spiegel. “This is as beautiful a place as there is anywhere, especially knowing the progress we’ve made on the Raritan.”
Across the river on East Brunswick’s Edgeboro Landfill, an EWA legal action resulted in the cleanup of a mile-long stretch of riverfront where trash had washed out with each outgoing tide. In its place, native vegetation and fruit-bearing trees were planted to attract cedar waxwings, swallows, and butterflies. This model Brownfields into Greenfields project can be thought of as turning garbage-to-gardens.
That Edgeboro legal action – along with an Akzo Nobel legal settlement – are helping to fund over a dozen other environmental projects in the Raritan Watershed, from NY-NJ Baykeeper’s public kayak and canoe trips, to Rutgers University’s landmark water quality testing initiative.
Taking a sampling at Mill Pond
While the Upper Raritan remains pristine in many areas, the Lower Raritan was off-limits for the public for most of the 20th century. Downstream from Edison, the Keasbey Brownfield Development Area is returning Woodbridge’s Raritan Riverfront to public access for the first time in a century, cleaning up toxic sites and restoring wetlands while promoting economic redevelopment. It is a true partnership of elected officials, environmentalists, and business owners working together with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to show that balanced redevelopment doesn’t require a false choice between the economy and the environment.
As the contaminated sites industry left behind are remediated, and native vegetation replaces exposed trash on landfill riverfronts, the Raritan gets cleaner. The first to benefit from that improved water quality are the fish. In Raritan Bay, the water teems with striped bass, winter flounder, bluefish and eels, and the bay floor below is dotted with oysters, quahog clams, lobsters, and blue crabs.
“The Raritan is a world-class fishery for striped bass and sports fishing,” notes Raritan Riverkeeper Bill Schultz.
The bountiful fish, in turn, help other wildlife recover. American oystercatcher, black skimmer, and yellow-crowned night-heron have returned in greater numbers, and bald eagles are spotted regularly along Highland Park’s riverside greenspaces and downtown New Brunswick’s urban riverfront. Eleven osprey nests sit jaggedly atop pilings and bulkheads along the Lower Raritan – without a single piling going nestless. Under the surface, sea turtles thrive all summer, and four species of seals winter here. River otter, mink, and beaver are seen along the riverbanks and tributaries, while bottlenose dolphins and pilot whales can be found at the mouth of the river and Raritan Bay.
With more fish and improved water clarity, the wildlife returning to the Raritan is complemented by waves of people – fishermen, crabbers, birdwatchers, hikers, kayakers, and boaters – doing likewise. Rutgers University’s Bloustein School of Planning is heading the Raritan River Collaborative and hosting its third annual Sustainable Raritan Conference this Thursday, focusing on the progress and public potential of this mighty river.
Many threats remain, however, to a fully healthy Raritan watershed. With EWA’s active involvement, the United States Environmental Protection Agency is making significant progress on the remediations of four Superfund Sites in the Lower Raritan Watershed: Horseshoe Road and Atlantic Resources in Sayreville, and Cornell-Dubilier Electronics and Woodbrook Road in South Plainfield. But other sites are proving problematic. The American Cyanamid Superfund Site in Bridgewater holds chemical lagoons with high levels of contaminants, and the Raritan Bay Slag Superfund Site in Old Bridge and Sayreville leaches toxic slag into the bay with each tide. Along the Lawrence Brook tributary of the Raritan, the Ford Avenue Redevelopment site in Milltown has impacted Mill Pond with contamination. And Raritan Center, the industrial business park within the sprawling former Raritan Arsenal, still poses threats from long-buried munitions. EWA’s Raritan River Project has progressed more than anyone thought possible 20 years ago, but work remains to be done.
“Our vision is a Raritan River that is safely fishable, swimmable, and drinkable again,” says EWA’s Spiegel. “The more that people become aware of just how vital the Raritan is to our daily lives, the closer we get to making that vision a reality.”
All hail the Queen of Rivers!
David Wheeler is the director of operations for Edison Wetlands Association and the author of Wild New Jersey: Nature Adventures in the Garden State.
Don’t Miss This!
NJN’s new film, Rescuing a River: The Raritan, will premiere tomorrow (Tuesday) night at 630 pm at the Forum Theatre on Main Street in Metuchen. See the Raritan’s recovery first-hand, free to public. Call EWA to reserve seats at 732-321-1300.
Images: Bob Spiegel photo by Barbara Bierne; bald eagle photo by Melanie Worob; osprey photo by Bill Schultz; night heron photo by Thomas Oates. All other images courtesy Edison Wetlands Association