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NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—From late November through early March, the city’s struggling water utility purchased millions of gallons of water each day from neighboring East Brunswick, but now city officials are faced with a bill in excess of $1 million.
The reason for the bulk fluid purchase was that the city had to shut down a large portion of its Comstock Street treatment plant to investigate the performance of the plant’s eight gravity filters, which represent half of the plant.
“The gravity filters were completely renovated in 2002,” reads a March 15 report released by a firm hired by the city in the wake of a water quality coverup scandal. “Based on the results of the filter inspection, a schedule for media replacement will be developed.”
A technical study required by state and federal regulators identified eight serious problem areas in the water treatment operation out of a possible 50 categories.
The first and most pressing problem was that the city’s water treatement plant did not have adequate performance goals for the twelve-year-old gravity filters.
“We did a complete filter media evaluation on them,” said Frank Marascia, New Brunswick’s new Water Director, who was hired in 2012 to clean up the mess left by previous leaders. “We had a company come in, take samples of the filter media, see if it was due for replacement or not.”
But the downtime didn’t come cheap, as the city administration quietly used drinking water provided by neighboring East Brunswick Township.
“I believe we took [East Brunswick water] for 98 days,” confirmed Business Administrator Thomas Loughlin, who ran the water utility until from 2007 until 2012.
The previous Director had committed suicide amid a federal investigation.
During Loughlin’s five-year tenure as Acting Water Director, the utility is accused of submitting falsified reports and failing to tell residents that they should have boiled their water before drinking it on six separate occasions between 2010 and 2013.
As a result of the coverup scandal, the city was forced by the state Department of Environmental Protection to hire independent experts to evaluate the city’s water treatment operation, which led to the “filter media evaluation.”
Beginning November 29, the city purchased roughly four or five million gallons of water daily from East Brunswick while the gravity filters were taken offline to undergo inspection.
“We had a pump malfunction at the D&R Canal, that is our major raw water source,” Loughlin told the City Council in December, adding that an interconnect between the two water systems was opened up.
“Our water personnel acted promptly to ensure that water pressure in the system was not compromised and that water quality remained in compliance throughout the weekend.”
“The pump again is operational. That plant is slated for some major mechanical upgrades later this year.”
But Loughlin did not tell the Council or the public that the city was continuing for months to consume East Brunswick water while half of the city’s water treatment operation remained offline.
So it came as a surpise to City Council members when they learned that the Water Utility had been running up a bill for the millions of gallons bulk water in March, after New Brunswick Today raised the issue at their public meeting.
The two neighboring towns still haven’t worked out the details of how much the city will pay for the 98 days of bulk water, according to New Brunswick officials.
“East Brunswick submited an invoice to us at about $1,000,040, which we intend to sit with them and have a discussion with them to understand if that’s a fair amount,” said Loughlin at a City Council meeting last month.
“The cost hasn’t been determined yet… We will sit with East Brunswick and we will have a friendly conversation about that.”
City spokesperson Jennifer Bradshaw confirmed the “friendly conversation” has not happened yet–at least not in person.
“A meeting has not been held, but Mr. Loughlin has spoken to East Brunswick via phone several times regarding this issue. The final price for the water is still being discussed,” Bradshaw said.
So far, City Council members have approved more than $121,300 in spending on the expert reports required by the Department of Environmental Protection and Environmental Protection Agency.
But those costs pale in comparison to some of the other numbers associated with the coverup scandal.
City Council and Mayor James Cahill also borrowed $3.77 million to make improvements to the city’s water system in the short time since the falsified water quality reports caught the attention of the state government in June 2013.
And another bond ordinance scheduled for a vote later this month would borrow an additional $2.26 million for the Water Utility, which could bring the total borrowing over $6 million in less than a year.
In recent months, the Council signed off on $456,190 to make repairs to the other portion of the plant, which uses a membrane filter system, and a one-year $24,350 contract with Siemens Water Technologies to maintain it.
Other costs approved by Council include $93,668 on emergency repairs and electrical improvements at the city’s water pumps, which are expected to be modernized with some $1.8 million in the borrowed funds.
“We have for a while determined that the mechanical equipment at the two raw water pump stations were in need of upgrades,” said Loughlin. “Many of the pump and motors are 60 years old. They have been remarkable reliable, and yet they needed to be upgraded.”
The Water Utility also asked and received Council approval to spend $13,801 on software to keep track of maintenance issues, $20,000 inspecting dams, and $110,000 for a national engineering firm, Hatch Mott McDonald, to provide “engineering support services.”
Not including the million-dollar water bill from East Brunswick, the city has already spent $839,309 on the water system since the scandal, in addition to the millions of dollars borrowed.
The most recent report issued by the city’s expert firm said that five of the eight gravity filters were able to be returned to service in March, but three were found to be defective.
The city is currently seeking bids to provide “replacement of filters, valves, and actuators,” according to the agenda of the April 2 City Council meeting.
Here is an excerpt from the monthly progress report filed with the city by Howard J. Woods & Associates, of Newtown, PA:
During the month of February, the gravity filters were not used to produce water. All filtration operations were shifted to the membrane filters and the City continued to purchase water from the East Brunswick Water Department.
In January, Roberts Filter Services, Inc. conducted a detailed inspection of the gravity filters… Filter Nos. 1 through 5 all have media depths that are uniform and the sand and anthracite are close to the original installation specification for effective size and uniformity. These filters can be returned to service.
Filter No. 8 has an apparent defect in either the media retention cap or the underdrain and will need to be rebuilt before it can be returned to service. Filter No. 7 has a potential leak in the air supply line for the air wash system. This has caused a small depression in the filter depth near the air supply line. Otherwise, the media in this filter is uniform and close to the original specification.
Further investigation of the possible leak in the air supply will need to be done before this filter can be returned to service. The sand layer in Filter No. 6 is uneven and this may be the result of partial plugging in the media retention cap or underdrain. In addition, the effective size of the anthracite is below specification. The overall depth of the media is close to specifications and the filter could be returned to service with additional monitoring
Laboratory results show some manganese deposition on the media, which is to be expected after approximately eleven years of service. The media is reaching the end of its expected service life and should be replaced within a year or two.
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate, a community organizer, and a former independent candidate for mayor of New Brunswick.