By KENNY WALTER
New Jersey residents can gulp down a glass of water without much concern, as New Jersey laws protecting clean drinking water remain among the strictest in the nation.
Dave Pringle, campaign director at Long Branch-based environmental advocacy organization Clean Water Action, said the state’s laws for water treatment extend well beyond what the federal government requires.
“Relatively speaking, overall New Jersey’s drinking water is in good shape,” he said. “New Jersey’s law is generally stronger than the federal law.
“By and large New Jersey’s laws are among the strictest in the country, but you can’t say water is safe.”
Much of the concern over contaminants in drinking water stems from recent news from Flint, Michigan, where lead contamination in the city’s drinking water supply has created a public health crisis.
Caryn Shinske, public information officer for the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), confirmed that the state’s testing is well above the federal requirements.
“New Jersey water systems are required to conduct scheduled testing and report the results to the DEP,” Shinske said in an email. “Our testing is more rigorous than the federal government’s for a variety of regulated contaminants.
“Procedures also exist for notifying the public about valuable water quality results. Under federal regulations, water utilities are required to report monitoring results and associated violations annually to customers through Consumer Confidence Reports.”
Shinske said over the course of two decades water companies have regularly met the state standards.
“Since 1996, better than 90 percent of community water systems in New Jersey have met the microbiological standards each year.”
However, Pringle said it is not possible for drinking water to be completely contaminant free.
“It’s a myth that your water can be perfectly safe,” he said. “It’s only a question of what level of risk there is.
“Other than 100 percent pure pristine water there’s no safe level of a carcinogen. You are going to have one atom or one molecule of something in your water, and that just might be the one molecule that causes lung cancer.”
According to Pringle, the New Jersey law sets the standard at one in a million cancer risk, whereas the federal legal requirement is one in 2,000. He said the standard is based on consuming two liters of water daily for 70 years.
Pringle also said the federal law and other states allow water treatment companies to use cost as a reason to not meet the standards, while New Jersey law does not give that as an excuse to not meet the standards.
New Jersey currently has more than 25 regulated companies providing drinking water throughout the state.
Dave Brogle, director of water quality for Middlesex Water Co., said once water enters the treatment plant, it is treated with various chemicals like a caustic soda and polymer. The water then goes into a mixing basin and sedimentation basin to settle out any particles. Chlorine is then added to the water before it is ultimately filtered and adjusted and then either placed in storage tanks or distributed to customers.
“There is a lot that goes on that people don’t realize to make sure that it gets to them and that it is safe to drink and that they always have it,” he said, adding that the chemicals used to treat the water are flushed out before it is distributed to the public.
Brogle said water companies must adhere to state and federal guidelines, but how water is treated largely depends on the source. For example, surface water needs more treatment than well water.
Bernadette Sohler, Middlesex Water Co. vice president of corporate affairs, said people are often taken aback when they realize there are chemicals in drinking water, especially chlorine, but before the utilization of chlorine people were dying from diseases like cholera caused by drinking water.
The Middlesex Water Co. treatment plant in Edison can produce up to 60 million gallons of water per day for municipalities throughout the state including Marlboro, Old Bridge and East Brunswick. The treatment plant produces about 70 percent of the water for the company, with the remaining 30 percent coming from wells and an interconnection with NJ American Water.
The water is monitored and tested throughout the process both manually and digitally.
Middlesex Water Co. Director of Production Frank Falco said lead contamination in drinking water is often a result of companies not properly treating the water before it enters the piping system.
“Water is corrosive by nature, so this helps prevent any metals from coming out,” he said. “It is the plumbing that causes the lead and copper issues, it’s not in the raw water, it’s not coming from the plant.”
According to Pringle, while lead in the drinking water has gotten most of the attention from the situation in Michigan, it is more common for other carcinogens to be in the water.
“Lead is your atypical contaminant,” Pringle said. “The vast majority of times when there is a lead problem, and this is certainly the case in Flint, it isn’t that the lead was naturally occurring that got into the groundwater and got into the drinking water, and it is not like some polluter dumped a bunch of lead somewhere.
“Lead is an effective component of various pipes and especially solder, so it is in the pipes that is surrounding the water. Most of the lead problem is after it’s left the water treatment plant.”
Pringle said lead in drinking water is more likely to occur in areas that have older construction and urban areas.
However, he said water treatment companies are required to test for lead and add an anti-corrosive agent to the water supply where lead may be a problem. He said the failure to add the anti-corrosive agent is what led to the issues in Michigan.
“What happened in Flint when they switched their water supply [is] the Flint River is highly corrosive and [they] didn’t take the appropriate countermeasures,” Pringle said. “Everybody could have done something better and differently.
“Thankfully, nothing like Flint has happened ever before anywhere. It is the exception, but boy, is it a God-awful one.”
Sohler said while she is not privy to the information as to what caused the situation in Flint, she said the incident has caused all utility companies to reevaluate some of their procedures.
“The way we look at it is that sort of raised awareness that utilities play in protecting public health,” she said. “We want customers to have confidence in the drinking water; we don’t want them to have to think about anything.
“Everyone is entitled to safe drinking water; that’s the bottom line.”
She also suggested homeowners contact plumbers and flush their systems to ensure that their pipes are clean.
Pringle said as time goes on, more is being researched and learned about the impact of the toxins in water.
Brogle also said the industry has changed and water consumption overall is down.
“It’s not so much bottled water, but the industry has preached conservation so we have seen kind of a leveling off right now,” he said.
Carol Storms, manager of water quality and wastewater for Aqua New Jersey, which provides water to residents in 27 municipalities in New Jersey including Howell and Upper Freehold, said the company has invested millions in infrastructure improvements to ensure clean drinking water.
“Aqua’s treatment facilities are run by licensed operators, and its water quality compliance testing is done at the company’s state-certified laboratory,” she said. “Aqua complies with New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection water quality regulations and works closely with the agency to respond to any water quality issues that might arise.
“We have spent more than $70 million over the last five years on capital improvements in New Jersey.”
For more information about lead and copper in drinking water visit http://www.nj.gov/health/epht/lead.shtml. Also, for information specific to a certain community regarding drinking water, visit https://www9.state.nj.us/DEP_WaterWatch_public/. A copy of the consumer confidence report is available on each individual water company’s website.