Water suppliers fear more tainted rivers

Wednesday, April 7, 1999

Trenton Bureau

Nearly three years after Governor Whitman scrapped a controversial plan to overhaul New Jersey's water pollution controls, the state's largest water suppliers are concerned about a new proposal they say would relax standards on some contaminants.

Water suppliers say a draft proposal under consideration by the Whitman administration could make it more difficult to treat water taken from waterways, such as the Passaic River, and create taste and odor problems in drinking water.

Water suppliers, sewerage treatment operators, and environmental groups have been negotiating for the past three years to assemble water pollution control regulations that all sides could support.

Whitman called the parties to the negotiating table after her administration's original proposal came under fire because it would have allowed increased dumping of toxic substances and opened the Passaic River to millions of additional gallons of treated sewage.

But three years of talking have produced no agreements on key issues. Environmental groups have stopped attending the meetings, complaining that the Whitman administration was favoring the sewerage industry.

"We helped start this whole process," said Jeff Tittel, executive director of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club. "But what was happening is that the department's going against its 40-year history of protecting New Jersey's water supply and promoting the polluters' agenda."

The disagreements run so deep that the state's largest water suppliers, including North Jersey District Water Supply Commission, Passaic Valley Water Commission, and United Water New Jersey, for the first time united to counter the Association of Environmental Authorities, which represents sewerage treatment plants and two of the water suppliers.

"We needed to protect ourselves and we needed to speak with a common voice," said Jerry Notte, a spokesman for the coalition of water suppliers and the general manager of the North Jersey District Water Supply Commission, which operates the Monksville and Wanaque reservoirs.

But Ellen Gulbinsky, executive director of the Association of Environmental Authorities, said her sewerage authority members are just as concerned about clean rivers as the water suppliers.

"Everyone is trying to keep an eye on the goal here, which is to improve water quality," Gulbinsky said. "But we have to put the public money behind the best strategies."

Lance Miller, director of watershed management for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said disagreements among the groups is part of the process of drafting regulations. The DEP hopes to have new regulations officially proposed by summer.

"We need them all to be active participants," Miller said. "We'll see where we have active opportunities for agreement and see if we can find compromise for all the parties."

The water suppliers are especially concerned with draft regulations that would ease the amount of phosphorous that sewage treatment plants are allowed to discharge.

Phosphorous is a nutrient that can cause algae blooms in rivers and reservoirs. It can cause taste and odor problems in drinking water. Water suppliers must use extra chemicals to remove the nutrients.

The Passaic River and many of its tributaries are in violation of the phosphorous standards, according to the DEP's list of polluted rivers.

The proposal would suspend the existing standard of 1 part per million and instead require a study of each watershed to determine the sources of phosphorous. In addition to sewage treatment plants, phosphorous occurs naturally in decaying leaves and is used as a fertilizer.

The phosphorous limit, which has been in place for the past six years, has not been enforced by the DEPbecause nine sewage treatment plants in the Passaic River Basin, including the sewerage authority in Wayne, have filed an appeal contesting the DEP standard. The case is pending.

Many sewage treatment plants exceed the standard by three to five times,said Bill Wolfe, a policy analyst with the Sierra Club.

Water suppliers also are concerned about the DEP's draft proposal favored by sewerage authorities that would allow an increase in total dissolved solids, which can bind to hazardous metals and cause taste and odor problems in drinking water.Removing solids also requires the use of additional chemicals.

The water suppliers also are asking the DEP to consider rules that would severely limit discharges within 1,500 feet of a drinking water intake on a river. The current regulations do not require higher quality water near drinking water intakes.