New Jersey Residents Demand Town Sell Municipal Water Co.

City Pays Malcolm Pirnie to Defend Municipal System

Friday, October 29, 1999

Staff Writer

NORTH HALEDON -- More than 100 frustrated North Haledon and Haledon residents packed into the auditorium of a local high school Thursday night and demanded that their embattled water utility be sold.

Local customers of Haledon Water Co., owned by Haledon's municipal government, angrily voiced complaints before a panel of state and local water experts, citing frequent problems with bacterial contamination, poor water pressure, and dirty water.

"This is a joke. . . . Why don't you sell it [the company] to someone who can make it work?" asked North Haledon resident Anthony Ramirez. "If you choose to keep it, allow us to switch to another water company."

Ramirez's proposition was met with thunderous applause from the crowd and came minutes after a representative from the company's engineering firm -- Malcolm Pirnie Inc. of Mahwah -- made a presentation about the utility's plans for improvements.

The utility supplies water to about 1,200 North Haledon residents and about 11,000 in Haledon. The communities' officials have passed the blame to each other for delays in making improvements that would modernize the system.

As a result, the mayor and council members from North Haledon set up the meeting, at Eastern Christian High School in North Haledon, primarily to address customers' problems exacerbated by Tropical Storm Floyd. But before the night was over, there were charges that the meeting was politically motivated and purposely planned just before Tuesday's election.

During the meeting, Justin Mahone of Malcolm Pirnie used an overhead projector to illustrate the company's plans for improving several pump stations, replacing old pipes, and using treatments to reduce corrosion. The company purchases its water in bulk from the Passaic Valley Water Commission and distributes it through its system.

About 68 percent of the utility's pipes are more than 90 years old, a main cause for the poor water quality, Mahone said. Immediate plans include a connection with Wayne Township, which would supply water on an emergency basis.

Mahone said the utility also is seeking low-interest loans from the federal government to pay for the repairs. He estimated the cost at $12 million to $14 million; the work would be completed over a 10-year period. Eventually, the company's customers would pay off the debt.

More than three hours of emotionally charged discussion ensued.

Some residents brought in bottles filled with brown tap water. One woman presented the panel with clothes still soiled after being washed.

"We can't live like this!" North Haledon resident Joanne Conte told the panel. Conte said she feared for the health of her children.

Another resident brought a plastic bag filled with sludge and offered it to Haledon Mayor Ken Pengitore, who told the crowd that he drinks Haledon water and has never had a problem.

The issue of water quality has been a campaign focus in both towns. And Haledon officials said the meeting, called less than a week before the election, is a political move orchestrated by Republican leaders in North Haledon, where control of the borough council is at stake Tuesday. Those on the Democratic ticket in North Haledon have also said the meeting was politically motivated.

"I love the timing of this meeting; it coincides with the full moon, which is Nov. 2," said Pengitore. "We have made conscious efforts to rectify problems."

North Haledon Mayor Randy George said the meeting was scheduled last month based on the availability of state officials.

"We have to have the meeting when they [state officials] were available," said George. "When would be a right time? The [storm] was the last straw for the people and we are going to let them talk."

Residents in both boroughs have complained for years about discolored water and high chemical levels. The water usually is considered safe, but chemical levels sometimes exceed state health standards. Last year, Haledon officials bonded $1.8 million to improve the water pressure and monitor water flow. Borough leaders said improvements have been delayed by last month's storm and a dispute with North Haledon.

George told residents his municipality is working on an agreement with Hawthorne to buy water for several proposed housing developments. He said once a water line is brought in, it would have the capability of drawing water for other nearby North Haledon residents.

Joseph Bella, executive director of the PVWC, said work planned for two additional pump stations -- one on Redwood Avenue and another on the Prospect Park border -- should improve water quality.

"We are taking steps to help Haledon straighten out the problem," he said prior to the meeting.

Bella, who did not attend, said a chemical to reduce corrosion should also alleviate some problems with dirty water.

But after nearly two hours of testimonials, North Haledon residents Tom and Sue DeBlock said the meeting was politically charged and offered residents no solutions.

"There were more excuses than answers," Sue DeBlock said.

"I am going out to get more Poland Spring," said her husband.

Copyright 1999 Bergen Record Corp.