September 6, 2009
By The Record Editorial Staff
AFTER decades of abuse and neglect, the Hackensack River is inching slowly back to health through the concerted efforts of many people and municipalities. One of the river's biggest champions is Bill Sheehan, director of Hackensack Riverkeeper and avid eco-tour guide. Sheehan knows the water's byways and inlets, its bird life and aquatic life, better than almost anyone. And, fortunately for the river, people know he knows.
So it was that an employee of the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Secaucus tipped off Sheehan that workers were allegedly dumping hundreds of gallons of raw sewage from the hotel directly into the Hackensack River. They even had a schedule, Sheehan told Staff Writer Scott Fallon this week: Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
This went on for 18 months, finally ending in June, after Sheehan alerted the state Department of Environmental Protection. Water samples confirmed sewage and other pollutants, and on Wednesday a grand jury issued an indictment against the hotel.
The Crowne Plaza has denied any wrongdoing, and said it is cooperating with the authorities.
The hotel faces millions of dollars in fines.
Unfortunately, this isn't the only case. As Fallon points out, owners of the Waterfront Café in Carlstadt let raw sewage into the river for three years. They pleaded guilty and are paying thousands of dollars in fines.
Not only can it kill off fish and plant life, exposure to raw sewage is bad for humans. And humans have been kayaking and canoeing the river in increasing numbers. Untreated sewage may cause gastroenteritis; eye, ear, nose and throat infections; and in extreme cases, dysentery, cholera, hepatitis and typhoid fever.
"More and more people are using the river for recreation, and they are under the impression that it is safe and clean," Sheehan said.
It is definitely cleaner than it was. Experts know that because the populations of fish, worms and other river creatures have grown. Municipal sewage plants have been closed, larger plants have been upgraded and runoff has been diverted. Thanks to Sheehan, the Hackensack Riverkeeper organization and others who have worked to nurse the river back to health, the waterway has a fighting chance.