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PCCC STEM Student Analyzes Passaic River

Updated: Oct 6, 2022

By: Arianne Bakelmun

PCCC student and Urban Scholars for Climate Change grant recipient Jocelyne Romano calls the Passaic River, “the perfect storm.” Romano relays that, “the Passaic River is considered one of the most polluted rivers in the nation. It’s also one of the river systems that is most prone to flooding.”

The river is situated in New Jersey, which is at sea level and already vulnerable to floods. Global warming increases sea levels, pushing an overly burdened river to its capacity. Additionally, construction along the flood-path further destabilizes the river, leaving less containment for future flood waters and increasing chances that flooding will wreck a destructive path. Finally, this is especially precarious because of the extent of the Passaic River’s pollution. As Romano explains, through flooding, the contaminated water is, “now reaching into potential water supplies for certain communities.”

Romano is working with advisor Professor Thomas Van Aken to study the condition of the Passaic River. She clarifies, “what I’m studying is the pH and dissolved oxygen because those two parameters are things that are very indicative of the water-health quality.” Her studies have taken place between March 2022 and August 2022 at varying sites along the Passaic River. She has also utilized the STEM lab at PCCC to compile her reports and generate a code to graph her findings. Romano created her code from scratch using Python.

Unfortunately, the lower level of the Passaic River has a storied past of dangerous toxic waste. During World War II, a company called Diamond Alkali produced Agent Orange, an herbicide that was used in the Vietnam War for chemical warfare with horrific results. According to Romano, not only does it “kill any type of plant life,” but it also contains dioxin. Romano states that, “a dioxin is really bad news in terms of chemicals because it’s been studied to cause reproductive harm to women [and] birth defects for children. It also has been studied to cause cancer.”

She continues, “the way they disposed of excess or bad batches of Agent Orange was to release it directly into the Passaic River, specifically around the Newark area. So, all of those toxins are still present in the river to this day.” Though this was 80 years ago, dioxin doesn’t just dissolve or dilute. Instead, extremely slowly, it becomes less reactive. In fact, fishing, swimming, and drinking from the river are still illegal.

Romano has looked at historical data from the river and observed that the lower level has seen a lot of extreme pH and dissolved oxygen readings. One area reported a pH of nine. For comparison, bleach has a pH of 13. This does not bode well for the river’s ability to support life or for its potential to harm nearby communities.

Now, because of all these things that were released out into the river, I’m curious to see how the pH has either stabilized or stayed the same. [Is it] still [extremes of highs and lows]…or is it leveling off? I really don’t know.” Romano explains, “that’s why I’m…going to be collecting data and going into the river.”

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