NJAS Opinion: Summer, 1990
At both the state and national levels, the environmental community
has had tough going anytime our legislative goals have carried
a substantial financial price tag. So why is the Passaic River
Tunnel Project, which doesn't have the support of a single major
environmental group and which will easily cost over a billion
dollars and cause great environmental damage, forging ahead in
This tunnel, and its complex support system, is a massive TVA-type
construction project that will drill some 15 miles through solid
rock under the Passaic River to divert flood waters to Newark
Bay. It would also destroy some 900 acres of wetlands that the
Passaic River basin can ill afford to lose. It is moving ahead
without a clear democratic mandate from the citizens of New Jersey
because former Governor Thomas Kean and Senators Bill Bradley
and Frank Lautenberg and Congressman Robert Roe are in favor of
the project. But the tunnel's proponents have not had the nerve
to come before the New Jersey legislature or our voters with a
bond issue or any other means of financing our share of the project,
which the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates will be over
200 million dollars. On 1 March 1990, the press carried accounts
of an effort by three New Jersey legislators to introduce a bond
issue to pay for the state's share of the tunnel. At the same
time, the state's budget deficit was being estimated at around
a half a billion dollars.
The Bush administration (remember "no net loss" of wetlands?)
has given its blessing to the federal share, but the source of
the state's share is still a mystery. We think our citizens deserve
some candid dialogue on it.
Professional lobbyists for the tunnel, such as J. B. Wiley, Jr.,
of "PROTECT," are busy trying to obscure the loss of
900 acres of wetlands by stressing that tunnel money will purchase
5,000 acres of wetlands "now in private ownership."
This is a shrewd but distorted way to present the wetland issue.
It ignores the fact that these 5,000 acres are now protected by
law, both state and federal. It is not absolute protection, but
Wiley and the tunnel proponents can't offer that either. What
will protect the basin's remnants is tougher enforcement by both
the state of New Jersey and, especially, the Army Corps of Engineers,
whose backlog of field inspections for outstanding violations
has been quite lengthy. If the corps could have diverted even
a portion of the staff time, money, and energy they have spent
over the past five decades working on tunneling plans to protecting
the wetlands of the basin, perhaps they would not be proposing
such an engineering boondoggle as a solution to what clearly is
a land use (abuse) problem. A change in the corps priorities -
that's the real diversion project that's needed.
We also believe that the corps is overreaching itself, in much
the same way it has in some of its Florida projects, with its
confident predictions that it can successfully manage the timing
and quantity of diverted water necessary to keep the wetlands
loss at "just" 900 acres. If the corps can't do this
management job just right, the potential loss to drying or over-flooding
of wetlands will be greater than anticipated.
There is another crucial aspect to the whole tunnel situation
that needs to be directly addressed: that of individual responsibility,
a concept that is much in the news today. The real burden of responsibility
for the problems that have led to tunnel desperation does not
lie just with the individuals and businesses who bought and built
in the Passaic's flood plains, because if they were new to the
area or unschooled in reading landscapes, they might not have
known about the long history of Passaic Basin flooding that the
corps has documented for us: 1811, 1865, 1882, 1896, 1902, 1936,
But the same can't be said for some local and state officials,
the go-go promoters who knew the history and the floodplain boundaries
and yet never issued warnings to unsuspecting buyers and, at the
same time, helped destroy acres of wetlands that might have reduced
The tunnel is being offered as the great technological escape
from the responsibility for these acts of omission and commission.
The signal the tunnel sends is this: go ahead and ignore nature
and sensible land use planning we can fix up any mistakes you
To add further insult to this lack of responsibility, even communities
supporting the tunnel refuse to put up a local share of the money
needed for it. The real flood victims are the citizens in Salem,
Camden, and Warren counties who will have to shoulder part of
the cost for this midnight remedy.
If any substantial public sums are to be spent on the Passaic
basin problems, they would be best directed to increasing the
scale of the buyout, reliable advance warning systems, and the
resources necessary to temporarily close roads and evacuate those
in the most danger. Does it make sense to pour all this money
into a tunnel and ignore the need for conservation and sound land
use planning in the Highlands of the northern part of the basin?
Repeating the mistakes of the lower basin in the Highlands is
only going to make matters worse.
To the credit of the conservation community, especially the Passaic
River Coalition, it is proposing legislation to help the flooding
victims without doing further damage to the basin environment.
The basin simply can't afford to lose the wetlands that the tunnel
and its levees and flooding basins will destroy.
We urge our readers to contact the above mentioned political officials,
and Governor Jim Florio, who has not yet made a commitment to
the tunnel, and let them know how you feel.
William R. Neil
Assistant Director of Conservation