Just a 30 minute drive from New York City brings you to a part of New Jersey called the Meadowlands. Home to a once pristine ecosystem of creeks, rivers, and wetlands, most people now associate this area with sports stadiums and rampant pollution.
However, a few years ago, and to the surprise of many New Jersey natives who had long since given up hope that any form of Meadowlands restoration was possible, headlines started popping up about renewed efforts to clean up this tarnished natural treasure. EPA money was promised. Hope emerged.
And despite the skepticism, cleaning large parts of one of the world’s worst dumping grounds happened and continued action is in place.
Fish, birds, and insects have returned. Plants fill once barren areas, and landfills are being closed down. In all honesty, and as odd as it is to write this as a New Jersey resident, the Meadowlands feels optimistic.
The Meadowlands polluted past
In the 1970s, my dad drove us from New York City to visit family in New Jersey. These were terrifying rides. I remember seeing clouds of black billowing smoke rising from piles of old tires. I held my breath as we passed through certain sections of the Meadowlands because the stench was overpowering.
Carcasses of old rusted automobiles lined parts of the Meadowlands. It looked like a graveyard for car parts and old rusted cars.
The Meadowlands was once the place where upscale New York City restaurants such as the Waldorf Astoria and the Four Seasons loaded trucks with seafood shells and other waste to dump into the brackish waters. People dumped everything from toxic chemicals to World War II military refuse to the original columns that graced Madison Square Garden into the Meadowlands. Rumors exist it was a burial ground for the late teamster Jimmy Hoffa.
Some of the dumping was legal; a lot of it was not. A climatologist told me many lawyers got rich defending and fighting companies that dumped toxic chemicals into the waters. One of the most contaminated areas was Berry’s Creek, which Robert Sullivan, author and journalist, wrote about in his wonderful book, The Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures at the End of a City.
“Berry’s Creek is sometimes called the Meadowlands most polluted waterway,” he wrote. “In the headwaters of Berry’s Creek, in a town called Wood-Ridge, there was once a mercury dump and as recently as 1980, it was possible to dig a hole in the ground and watch it fill with balls of shiny silvery stuff. Approximately three hundred tons of mercury filtered down into the meadows by 1980, covering a total of forty acres of land and filling the livers and kidneys of Meadowlands’ fish.”
Berry’s Creek has long been considered one of the most toxic places in the country, with mercury contamination migrating from the adjacent 40-acre Ventron/Velsicol Superfund site in Wood-Ridge, NJ. However, there is good news. The contamination has settled into the relatively stable sediment underneath the creek, and there is a plan emerging to dredge Berry’s Creek to remove some of the worst mercury and PCB contamination.
Ten times the size of Central Park
Also known as the Hackensack Meadowlands, after the main river flowing through it, this large ecosystem of wetlands in northeastern New Jersey is ten times the size of Central Park. Both the Hackensack and Passaic Rivers flow into Newark Bay; all are part of the Meadowlands. As the restoration continues, boaters have returned to the area.
Aptly called the Meadowlands, it had meadows and cedar tree forests a long time ago. In 1750, Pehr Kalm, Finnish botanist, explorer, and naturalist, wrote, “The inhabitants here are not only lessening the number of their trees, but are even expatriating them entirely. By these means, many swamps are already quite destitute of cedars.”
Other changes to the Meadowlands included deepening the Hackensack River for navigation and adding drainage canals, which caused saltwater to enter the original fresh and brackish waters thus altering the environment.
Development of the Meadowlands continued in the 1960s. Removing and building wetlands and marshes causes flooding. It’s an issue for the 14 towns in Bergen and Hudson Counties, which make up parts of the area.
The Clean Water Act’s role
According to Francisco Artigas, Ph.D., co-director and chief scientist of the Meadowlands Research and Restoration Institute (MRRI) (formerly called the Meadowlands Environmental Research Institute), which is the scientific arm of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority (NJSEA), “The Clean Water Act in the early 1970s played a major role in protecting the wetlands.”
It offered protections to the Meadowlands and gave the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) the power to implement pollution control programs such as setting wastewater standards.
“Today, we’re constantly monitoring and testing the water,” Artigas says. “The fish and birds have returned. It’s not a cheap fix. It’s a necessary one because we’re seeing the positive effects with the return of plants and wildlife.”
Sometimes the contaminants are found in the mud, “and that is addressed,” Artigas says.
A positive look forward
Only one landfill in the Meadowlands remains. The closed landfills have protective caps to keep garbage from leaking and water from these sites now flows to sewer treatment plants. Grasses and other plants grow in these former landfills and bring bugs and birds to the area.
The federal government created a Superfund program in the early 1980s to remove the toxins from millions of gallons of water.
“The turnaround began to happen when the landfills closed and the water pollution plants started to clean up their output of what they put into the water,” Terry Parker Doss, CERP, co-director of MRRI and chief restoration ecologist, explains. “One way we measure the positive change is to look at wildlife. We have staff that count the birds that have returned to the area. We see osprey nesting successfully and we even saw a pair of eagles. It’s a testament to how clean it’s becoming. Without successful nesting you know you’re in trouble.”
“The populations of migrating birds we’ve seen this year has increased. We’re looking at who’s staying in the Meadowlands, the number of species and breeds.”
Meadowlands staff tag and band birds to keep track of them. Plants are also returning as well as fish and insects.
“What we’re doing is not controlling nature,” Doss says. “We’re working with it. And there’s the challenge of invasive species. Right now a big one is the spotted lantern fly.”
Birders, hikers, and sight seekers are visiting the Meadowlands. The New Jersey Audubon has a list of trails for visitors. NJSEA hosts boat tours and nature walks.
My local adult school hosted a small boat tour of the Meadowlands, which I went on. I saw peregrine falcons, snowy egrets, and an assortment of ducks and other birds. Fish were in the waters, too. You can’t eat them, but populations of fish have returned.
More changes are coming
NJSEA received three grants totaling $547,000 from the EPA to study and combat sea level rise, combat climate change vulnerability, and mange long-term land use monitoring.
The grants, awarded in September, allows NJSEA to acquire information on terrain elevation and land cover for the entire Meadowlands District. The grant also allows NJSEA to update its knowledge of the Meadowlands hydrology and natural resources and give support to the agency’s Land Use and Stormwater departments. In addition, research will aid the NJSEAs efforts to balance development and protection of natural resources in the region.