PATERSON, NJ – David Gilmore of the “Let’s Save Paterson” community action group was packing up tools from Saturday’s rain-aborted riverbank clean-up effort when he heard a “flushing” sound come from the Passaic River near the West Broadway bridge.

“I looked over the side and I saw this discharge,’’ recalled Gilmore, “and then I started to smell it.’’

[Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional information about a resident's efforts to get the state involved in fixing the problem.]

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What he smelled was untreated sewage spewing into the river. That’s not so unusual. Under Paterson’s antiquated sewers that handle both rainwater runoff and sewerage through the same pipes, there are about 20 places where sewage sometimes flows into the river when heavy storms overwhelms the system, officials said.

What’s unusual at the West Broadway discharge point is that sediment has accumulated in the river to form a little island that blocks whatever spews from the pipe. Instead of dissipating in the flow of the river, the sewerage settles in pools beneath the river.

“It’s a health hazard of the first order,’’ said Gilmore. “It’s like a third-world country.’’

Representatives of the Passaic Valley Sewage Commission went out to inspect the problem on Monday. They also contacted the Paterson Department of Public Works about the situation.

Public Works Director Christopher Coke said the sewage commission normally just clears debris from the river and is not responsible for removing sediment like what’s causing the problem near the West Broadway bridge. Officials from the sewage commission confirmed that.

Coke said the United States Army Corps of Engineers has the responsibility for clearing sediment. On Wednesday, Coke said he has a meeting scheduled with representatives of the Army Corps and he plans to ask what they can do about the situation.

The city’s public works staff lacks the manpower and the expertise to handle the job, Coke said. “If I could do it without putting someone in harm’s way, I would,’’ Coke said.

Meanwhile, another city activist, Lydia Robles, has been in contact with representatives of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection duing the past several weeks to try to get the state agency to intervene. 

"The issue is being attended to and is not being ignored,'' said Robles, who is community liaison with Hispanic Council On Social Policy Center For Community Development Corp. "We have some answers, but not all the answers - but we are getting there.'' 

Gilmore said the cesspools could be breeding grounds for disease-carrying mosquitoes. He said it was unconscionable for officials to allow the problem to fester near the Riverview Towers apartment complex on Presidential Boulevard and blocks away from the heart of Paterson’s downtown business district.

“This is not something you would see in other downs along the river,’’ Gilmore said.