LETTER – Water Crisis: More Talk, No Action

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Today the Legislature is holding a Joint Legislative Task Force on Drinking Water Infrastructure meeting. The Task Force will be receiving testimony on New Jersey’s drinking water, including our drinking water infrastructure. They will be taking suggestions for improvements to make our drinking water supply safer and more plentiful. The New Jersey Sierra Club believes that the combination of outdated infrastructure and the Christie Administration’s rollbacks on water protections has lead to New Jersey’s problems with our drinking water.

“Today the Joint Task Force is hearing testimony on New Jersey’s water infrastructure problems but we’ve heard this all before. For 30 years we’ve heard water companies and other groups discussing the water crisis and problems with old pipes and pollution. For 30 years they’ve done nothing to fix it. We know what the problem is but we need real action to get it done. The Legislature is just as at fault as well. They’ve had hearing after hearing on these issues but have never come up with a plan or funding source to fix them,” said Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “Fixing lead pipes alone is an $8 billion problem and dealing with Combined Sewer Overflows is a $14 billion one. We have a $47 billion problem overall and no political will to get it done.”

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As a result of aging infrastructure, lead from old pipes has caused illness and even in small amounts can lead to brain damage and learning disabilities. It can also lead to childhood development problems and other serious health issues. Thousands of children are diagnosed with lead poisoning in our state each year; over 3,000 in 2015 alone. Under the Christie Administration, we have also seen proposals to roll back water quality protections that will increase development and add more pollution to our waterways. Another problem the report identified is that we have not yet identified future needs of our water supply because the Master Plan hasn’t been updated in 20 years. We also need to set a drinking water standard for trichloroethylene (TCE) and perchloroethylene (PCE) to protect public health.

“Our water is at risk and we need to fix our old leaky pipes. We have a serious problem with lead in our drinking water because many cities in New Jersey, have old pipes and aging water infrastructure. Some of this infrastructure goes back to the Victorian Age. This is a least a $8 billion problem that needs to be fixed immediately to keep the lead out of our schools. One quarter of our water is also leaking out of these pipes,” said Jeff Tittel. “Not only do we have hundreds of old and unsafe dams, we have failed to update the Water Supply Master Plan for over 20 years. Our Governor has tried to weaken protections in the Highlands and Pinelands that protect our clean drinking water. These rule proposals undo years of planning and progress protecting water quality. We must protect our drinking water not only by updating infrastructure, but also by protecting it across the state.”

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New Jersey has one of the worst records in the country when it comes to combined sewer overflows and we have sewer plants that are vulnerable to severe storms like Hurricane Sandy. In our older cities our sewer systems and our storm water systems are combined so every time it rains it pours raw sewage into our waterways and even into people’s homes. This includes the many toxic chemicals from contaminated sites and industrial discharges that get mixed in. According to Climate Central, The Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission in Newark discharged 840 million gallons of untreated sewage into Newark Bay as a result of coastal flooding from Sandy. Then, while the area was being cleaned-up another 3 billion gallons of partially treated sewage overflowed. In Middlesex County, another 1.1 billion gallons of untreated sewage discharge to local waters.

“We need to do more to clean up our combined sewer overflow because they are a health hazard. Dilapidated storm water systems exacerbate the problem by increasing the water in combined sewers and we need funding to reduce the amount of water in sewers during major storm events. The biggest source of pollution we face is nonpoint pollution and we need to retrofit our stormwater basins to protect our waterways, while revitalizing our waterfront neighborhoods and communities. We need at least $13 billion just to fix our combined sewer overflow systems, but overall we need more than $45 billion to fix our water and sewage infrastructure,” said Jeff Tittel. “After Hurricane Sandy, we had over one hundred sewage plants knocked out and these facilities must be retrofitted so we can handle future flooding and severe storms. This has caused billions of gallons of untreated sewage into our waterways. We also have problems with infiltration and inflow that causes wastewater overflows into the pipes in the collection system.”

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Our outdated infrastructure is causing us to lose massive amounts of water. Another issues with outdated water infrastructure is that it can add toxins such as lead to our drinking water. Lead is one of the most hazardous substances known to man and it impacts children, especially small children, in our urban areas. Children in New Jersey cities have more lead in their blood than those in Flint, Michigan. Lead can cause illness and even in small amounts can lead to brain damage and learning disabilities.

“New Jersey cities have old outdated pipes in our streets and communities and many go back to the Victorian Era. Some of these are even made with lead sodder. Lead is a dangerous substance that can have serious health impacts, especially on children. In urban areas 25% of the water travelling through these pipes leak out. Contaminated water can also get into the system through these leaks. If we don’t clean start looking at how to fix our drinking water infrastructure this problem will only get worse,” said Jeff Tittel. “Many of the cities in New Jersey that have the worst problems like Newark, Trenton, or Paterson have no money to even plan to fix the problems, let alone fix them.”

We have problems with other contaminates as well, such as the discovery of toxic 1,2,3-Trichloropropane (TCP) in wells in Morrestown. The Governor vetoed a bill that required that Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) be established for TCP and other volatile organic chemicals. An MCL is the standard for how much of a certain chemical can be in the drinking water before it poses a potential public health risk. TCP is commonly used as an industrial solvent and new research points to the possibility of TCP having severe health effects including cancer. TCP is recognized in California as a human carcinogen. These chemicals have been found in wells in Moorestown and dozens of other places in New Jersey. The state has not yet set an MCL for it, putting the public at risk. There is a relatively easy and cost-effective solution to upholding an MCL for TCP. The towns would simply have to put carbon mesh filters on the wells to filter these chemicals and protect the public’s health.

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“Christie is continuing to put the public of New Jersey’s health at risk by stopping efforts to protect our drinking water. 1,2,3- TCP is a known carcinogen that impacts public health. This is one of the many health based standards and regulations that the Christie Administration has deliberately blocked. The Christie Administration is consistently siding with polluters over public health. We would not have needed this legislation except the Christie Administration is not moving forward with protecting drinking water. He vetoed this bill because he sides with polluters over public health. The legislature originally passed this bill because the DEP refused to do their job to protect public health and drinking water. The Governor deliberately vetoed this bill as part of his attacks on environmental protections,” said Jeff Tittel.

The state of New Jersey hasn’t been fulfilling their obligation to protect drinking water and public health. Christie’s Executive Order 2 calls for no rules stricter than federal standards which would impact the regulation of these compounds in our water.  New Jersey law requires a one in a million drinking water standard for cancer while the federal limit is one in 10,000 to one in 100,000 depending on the chemical. The Christie administration has not adopted any new standards while in office. This administration has had a war on science.  They have removed scientists from key positions. The award-winning Division of Science has been downgraded to an Office and a political appointee now heads the Office rather than a scientist. The Science Advisory Board has been stacked with polluters, including DuPont. Since they have not made any recommendations in five years, the DEP has not adopted any standards. The DEP has not adopted any standards and they can whether the Institute meets or not, though they tend to follow the Institute’s lead.

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“We’ve already identified the problems with New Jersey’s drinking water supply and infrastructure. Private water companies don’t want to spend the money because they want a better rate of return that is so high that the BPU would never approve it. They don’t want to borrow the money either, so they don’t get in trouble with their foreign owners. The public companies don’t want to raise rates either to fix the problems because they don’t want the ratepayers or voters to get angry. Whether it’s old pipes leaking out water, contaminates like lead threatening our children, or problems with Combined Sewer Overflows, it’s time for the Legislature to take action and protecting our drinking water supply and infrastructure,” said Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “Our concern is that we’ll just have a hearing with no one really listening to make the changes that need to be made.”

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