Bill Sheehan, keeper of the Hackensack River, one of the most polluted in the United States

He is neither a lawyer, nor a financier, nor a politician, but activist Bill Sheehan has moved mountains to create a sanctuary and clean up the Hackensack River, polluted by industry 10 kilometers from Manhattan, although there is still much to be done.

“This area of ​​New Jersey, very close to New York, is the cradle of the American Industrial Revolution”, explained the former taxi driver with the eternal hat. “So for more than 200 years, we have been ravaging this river.”

After purchasing a boat, Captain Sheehan, his nickname, noticed the deplorable condition of the Hackensack, along the banks of which he had played as a child.

“It didn’t take me long to understand that the river needed a full-time keeper,” he says of this waterway surrounded by a highly dense urban network.

With the Hackensack Riverkeepers Association (Guardians of the Hackensack) formed in the late 1990s, the former drummer, long neck, earlobes and mustache, blocked the way for promoters and industrialists who had already drained 60% of the surrounding swamps to build there.

Activist Bill Sheehan on his boat on the Hackensack River near New York on June 15, 2023 (AFP – Kenna Betancur)

Through negotiations and legal proceedings, he managed to secure the remainder, or about 3,400 hectares of land, without paying a single penny.

From a treatment plant, further north, to a hotel, further south, Captain Sheehan has also put an end to reckless dumping of sewage, thanks to the courts or a topic on the local television channel.

In 2008, he asked the industrial conglomerate Honeywell to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in cleaning up a chromium-contaminated site on the banks of the Hackensack in Jersey City.

“We had to end this big crap,” explains Bill Sheehan as his boat heads up the Leeward River.

– “A big challenge” –

Bill Sheehan is “a mentor, a friend and a hero to me and to many defenders of waterways around the world,” describes Mark Yaggi, director of the Waterkeeper Alliance, which oversees more than 300 associations in 47 countries.

An aerial view of the Hackensack River in New Jersey near New York on June 15, 2023 (AFP - Diane Desobeau)
An aerial view of the Hackensack River in New Jersey near New York on June 15, 2023 (AFP – Diane Desobeau)

With the closure of many industrial sites, the sanctuaries of wetlands and the stopping of wild dumping, nature has already regained some of its rights.

Many birds have returned, most notably the Great Blue Heron, which crosses paths with egrets and ospreys.

Michael Gonelli, mayor of Secaucus, which borders the river, says, “The river is very clean and you have Captain Bill to thank for that.”

In Laurel Hill Park, south of Secaucus, fishermen are chain-catching fish.

“I release them,” says Evan Ypsilanti, who travels frequently from upstate New York. “For me, it is better not to eat them.”

Local officials also recommend not eating fish caught in the Hackensack, which often contain various contaminants, even though many of them do eat them.

– Contaminated sediment –

At the bottom of the river there is still a dangerous cocktail that includes arsenic, chromium, lead, mercury, but also the infamous PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), the so-called “perpetual” pollutants.

Skyscrapers overlooking the Hackensack River, New Jersey, New York, June 15, 2023 (AFP - Kenna Betancur)
Skyscrapers overlooking the Hackensack River, New Jersey, New York, June 15, 2023 (AFP – Kenna Betancur)

Bill Sheehan says, “When we put up signs saying don’t eat crab, people laughed at me and said, ‘I’ve eaten them all my life and it hasn’t hurt me. ‘” He says, “Many people are no more in this world today because of cancer.”

Disinfecting the sediment is Bill Sheehan’s ultimate goal. But the 74-year-old Captain resolved to ask for help, realizing that “I would have to live to be 300 years old” to obtain the necessary money at court.

Last September, after several years of study, the federal government agreed to add Hackensack to the list of “superfunds,” polluted sites eligible for public money.

Project manager Michael Sivak explains that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will approach all companies and communities that have direct or indirect responsibility for the deterioration of the site in order to obtain the necessary funds.

“This site is a huge challenge,” he admits, “but we don’t want it to take decades like the others.”

Cleaning the entire bottom for about 30 kilometers seems unrealistic, with the EPA studying the possibility of treating only the most contaminated areas.

Still, Bill Sheehan is seeing a billion-dollar raise.

The worker describes, “I’m a person who lives in the present, so it took me a while to understand that it won’t be tomorrow. (…) I won’t see this ending in my lifetime. But what matters is the result.”

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