Trenton Water Works Director: Drinking water is safe despite officials call for takeover

Officials from across Mercer County have called on the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s direct oversight of Trenton Water Works after what officials are calling “years of failure to comply with safe drinking water obligations.”

The call follows a letter sent by the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) to Trenton Water Works (TWW) and Trenton citing “continued failures to advance capital improvements and ensure that ordinary maintenance and operational needs crucial to the protection of public health are met.”

“Residents deserve safe drinking water. We are deeply disturbed by DEP’s findings regarding the lack of progress on long-term projects necessary to keep the residents of Hopewell Township and Mercer County safe,” Hopewell Mayor Courtney Peters-Manning said.

The mayor noted that Hopewell Township has appreciated its working relationship with the professional staff at TWW.

“However, change is necessary,” she said.

TWW supplies approximately 29 million gallons of drinking water daily to more than 200,000 people, including residents of Trenton and four neighboring municipalities – Ewing, Hamilton, Hopewell, and Lawrence townships.

New Jersey State Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-14), Assemblymen Wayne DeAngelo, and Dan Benson (both D-14), Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes, Mercer County Board of County Commissioners Chair Nina Melker, Hamilton Mayor Jeff Martin, Ewing Mayor Bert Steinmann, Lawrence Township Mayor John Ryan and Peters-Manning are on the forefront of the call.

“On behalf of the TWW customers within Lawrence Township, it is time for the operations of the water utility to be taken from the City of Trenton,” Ryan said. “For far too long, the customers of TWW have lived with the fear, and at times reality, that the water they drink and use daily is unsafe.”

He added that the report from the NJDEP dated Sept. 27, demonstrates that the City of Trenton cannot meet the needs of its water utility customers by producing clean and safe water.

In 2020, the Attorney General and NJDEP filed a lawsuit against TWW seeking to compel the City of Trenton and the water utility to take the necessary actions after failing to comply with Administrative Consent Orders to provide safe drinking water. The municipalities have since joined the lawsuit.

The failures include, but are not limited to, filling vacancies critical to running the treatment plant and the covering of the Pennington Reservoir, which funding for was denied by the Trenton City Council months after the lawsuit was filed.

“Access to safe drinking water and a well-functioning water system is not an unreasonable expectation by the Mercer County residents who have no alternative to the city-operated TWW,” Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes said.

Hughes said while he is encouraged by Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora’s determination to address the ongoing compliance issues and substandard water quality noted by the NJDEP, he condemns the “irresponsibility and recklessness of the City Council for its egregious neglect of the water system, its disregard for the directives set forth by the NJDEP and the injustices it has placed on communities of color and on all TWW customers.”

NJDEP’s letter cited failure of compliance to the orders and stated that the state agency is “disturbed by the current City Council’s continuing failures or refusals to authorize resolutions necessary to advance critical capital improvements.”

“The most recent inspection report from the NJDEP validates the charge that, time and time again, the residents of this region have been failed by the Trenton City Council and TWW,” Greenstein said. “Despite the actions of some to try and resolve these long-standing issues, it is readily apparent that a change in leadership is desperately needed.”

Benson stressed that they should not wait for another disaster before taking action.

“The safety of our residents must come first,” he said. “The NJDEP letter shows that the current operation of TWW is unacceptable, it’s time for action,” he said.

Melker said the NJDEP’s latest compliance evaluation and inspection in September is “disturbing and concerning.”

“It is now evident that an intervention is needed at a state level to ensure that TWW can fulfill their obligation to provide safe and clean drinking water to the residents throughout Mercer County in their service designation,” she said.

TWW response

Following the NJDEP’s letter, TWW Director Mark Lavenberg said on Sept. 30 that TWW has acted with full transparency in self-reporting ongoing assessments to NJDEP.

“Given that level of coordination, the letter and report issued this week unnecessarily seem like snapshots from the past,” he said. “Many areas of concern in this report are currently being or have been addressed. Forward strides made by TWW are not reflected in the least in these documents.”

Lavenberg noted that the ability to correct some of the deficiencies in the letter has been diminished by City Council decisions regarding dozens of major legislative approvals for project funding and awarding of bids.

The NJDEP letter points out City Council’s rejection of a $15 million bond request as a destabilizing decision, according to Lavenberg.

“We are addressing specific requirements from NJDEP. We have been lead-compliant since 2019 and have made major upgrades, for instance the raw water intake which was a recommendation in the 1976 report quoted by NJDEP,” Lavenberg said. “We are being asked to correct nearly 50-year-old problems in four years, which included a global pandemic.”

He stressed that through all of that, TWW never once had an interruption in service.

“We want to set the record straight — our drinking water is safe — and day by day we are working to make it safer. The health of our customers and residents is our primary concern,” Lavenberg said.

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