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The Passaic River Tunnel: Wrong Solution, Wrong Price, Wrong Time

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 Washington, D.C.?

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, 1938, 1945...

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 flooding.

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 make.

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