PCCC STEM Students Study Local River

By: Arianne Bakelmun

According to the EPA, litter “detracts from the beauty” of our communal spaces, “affects water quality,” and “can serve as a breeding ground for bacteria…disease…and pests” (“Learn About Aquatic Trash”). This liability to public health puts a strain on local funds for an expensive cleanup while at the same time lowering “the aesthetic and recreational value” of the community it affects (“Learn About Aquatic Trash”).

PCCC students Stephlyn Buchanan, Aksarapuk “Gain” Mullane, and recent PCCC graduate Justin Santiago are concerned with the way climate change and litter has impacted the local Passaic River. In addition to the accumulated garbage, Santiago states, “with climate change we’re worried about the carbon emissions and how that can affect the river. As carbon goes into the river, it’s going to lower the oxygen level, which is unhealthy for the river.”


Under the Urban Scholars for Climate Change grant, taking place from March 2022 to August 2022, they make up a research team advised by Professor Erica Foote. Together, they have gathered data along five different points of the Passaic River to study the river water contamination. The opportunity to analyze the Passaic River is personal to Santiago, who recounts, “my high school was right next to the river and [it’s]…extremely polluted. The area around it is full of trash.”

From June through August, the team collected temperature, pH, and dissolved oxygen measurements from the river near JFK High School, Pennington Park, Morris Canal Park, Mary Ellen Kramer Park, and under the bride by Woodland Park Library. They also utilized the STEM Makerspace Lab at PCCC to meet and collaborate. The group clarifies that testing for dissolved oxygen and pH is crucial because they “are two of the most important aspects of marine life.”

Though Santiago expected to find evidence of unhealthy water, with low oxygen concentration that may not support life, the team was surprised to find encouraging results. In fact, their conclusion asserts, “This study revealed that the dissolved oxygen, pH levels, and temperature were normal at each of the sites we tested. In comparison to historical data, the dissolved oxygen improved, pH stood consistent, and the temperature has gotten cooler.”

However, the team remains concerned about the vast amounts of litter and acknowledges that the data does not tell the full story. Upon their visits to the Passaic River, Buchanan observed, “plastic bottles floating in the river, and…garbage gathering.” Some areas of the river even had a putrid smell. Additionally, Buchanan reveals, “while we were doing this project children were playing [and fishing] in the same area of the river. New Jersey has to do more…I would like to see people go out and clean up the river.”

Santiago agrees that, “there should be a massive cleanup of just the garbage alone.” He adds that there are areas where dissolved oxygen levels approach the limit at which marine life will suffer. In one location, Santiago would like to see the dissolved oxygen increase while another location could stand to see dissolved oxygen decrease.

Though there is room for improvement, Santiago, Buchanan, and Mullane’s findings are cautiously optimistic. Their study and observations are an important step in understanding and relaying how the local environment can become a healthier and more beautiful asset to the people that live there.


Works Cited

“Learn About Aquatic Trash.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 19 Nov. 2021, https://www.epa.gov/trash-free-waters/learn-about-aquatic-trash#:~:text=Social%20and%20Economic%20Impacts&text=When%20litter%20accumulates%20in%20or,attract%20pests%20or%20cause%20fires.

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