Milltown officials stress lead concerns are minimal

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By KATHY CHANG
Staff Writer

MILLTOWN — Residents are encouraged to flush their faucets for at least one minute as Milltown officials continue to work on rectifying the outcome of the lead and copper samples that were taken from 20 homes during the summer as part of the voluntary New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Lead and Copper sampling program.

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“Out of 20 samples, we had 17 homes [show] levels or lower levels for lead tested, with three homes testing higher than acceptable levels, as stated by the DEP [New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection],” said Councilwoman Doriann Kerber, who serves as the chair of the Milltown Utilities Department. “Out of the three homes, two have been rectified and the third property is still vacant.”

Kerber noted the third property had been vacant for a few months when the sample was taken.

The homes that were tested were on the borough’s DEP-approved list.

The sampling procedure, according to the DEP, requires the customer to allow the water to sit undisturbed in their plumbing for six hours prior to collecting the sample.

“Due to these circumstances, I am introducing an outreach program for the borough for all departments,” said Kerber, who said she will seek council approval for the program.

“Once I have received feedback [from department supervisors], then I will present this to the council. In addition, this will involve several stakeholders around the borough that I am sure will participate because we all want to communicate and share important information in Milltown.”

The borough held a public education meeting on the water test results from July on Dec. 5 at Borough Hall.

Kerber explained that officials have been working diligently with the DEP for several months.

She said she along with Chief Financial Officer Denise Biancamano; Borough Engineer Michael McClelland; John Murphy, who operates the borough’s water and sewer operation; and John Eckert, director of Municipal Utilities, met with DEP officials on Oct. 7 to discuss their plan and process.

“We were looking to get [the vacant property] sample invalidated, but they chose not to invalidate that sample so we are proceeding to continue with a public education plan portion,” Kerber said.

Murphy said the mandatory language set by the DEP in the message sent out to residents about the results can be scary.

“It basically sounds like you’re going to die,” he said.

Murphy said the result taken from the vacant home, which had been vacant for six months, was an accident.

“I don’t want to play down the lab results; [however], I don’t want you to think your kids are dying.”

Eckert explained that one of their department members took the sample not knowing how long the home was vacant.

“It never occurred [to us] to throw the sample out,” he said. “It could have been empty for a week for all we knew at the time.”

Eckert said when officials saw the spike in lead when the results came, they called the realtor, who told them the house had sat empty for six months.

He said they brought this information and documentation to the DEP, but he said DEP officials decided to not throw out the bad sample.

Councilman Randy Farkas said he raised his concerns at a council meeting a few months ago.

“Take 20 homes and three failed — that’s 15 percent,” he said. “There’s roughly 2,500 water customers so a simple extrapolation, it would be about 400-450 [customers] that could potentially have lead problems.”

Farkas said the residents of Milltown should have known of the results the next day when the results came out in July.

Eckert said residents of those 20 homes were notified immediately as per legal notification.

Farkas said there is legal notification and there is moral notification.

“This is immoral,” he said of not notifying all Milltown residents.

Kerber said when they received the notice of noncompliance from the DEP, they had to fill out forms and timeframes were set.

“They [DEP] said we had until Nov. 30 for notification [of all residents] because the situation was a vacant property. … It wasn’t something going through our system, and I was reassured that we were OK as long as we were on a timeframe,” she said.

Councilman Nick Ligotti suggested that water mains should be tested for lead, which Murphy said the borough could do.

Mayor Eric Steeber said despite the results, he wanted to put things into perspective.

“New Brunswick is not giving us bad water,” he said. “We do not have bad water because there’s no lead in our [water] mains.”

Murphy said the chemical makeup of the water as it comes into the house and how that reacts to fixtures inside the house is what can cause the lead.

Steeber said that is what he wants people to understand.

“I want to make sure people don’t think we are getting poison water from New Brunswick or we have poison water in our main,” he said. “Best way around that, besides going out and spending $20,000, replacing all fixtures and services to the house, is to run the water for a minute before using it.”

For customers who are concerned that their home’s plumbing may contain fixtures and solder with high lead concentrations, it is recommended that the tap water be run for 15-30 seconds prior to use for drinking and cooking, particularly if the water has been allowed to sit unused in the plumbing for an extended period of time.

Sally Miller, a homeowner and business owner in the borough, said when she first heard about the lead results, she had the copper pipes in her home tested. Those results, she said, tested positive for lead over and above the limit.

“That was obviously an immediate concern, especially with two children,” she said. “We have to be in the spirit of helping each other. Let’s help each other to resolve this.”

Kerber said the borough will test 40 new sampling sites for lead and copper though the DEP guidance plan.

“We will make those results public,” she said.

Kerber said public education outreach will continue into 2017.

“I have reached out to the DEP about the meeting, and we will do our best to answer questions received, based upon call volume or email volume, in a timely manner,” she said. “Our Utility Team is working to keep up on maintenance issues, ordering of new supplies and keeping the public informed.”

For more information, call 732-828-2100, ext. 137 or visit www.milltownnj.org.

For more information on reducing lead exposure around one’s home/building and the health effects of lead, visit the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency at www.epa.gov/lead.

Contact Kathy Chang@kchang@gmnews.com.

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