NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—For the second time in as many years, the New Brunswick city government has been forced to own up to violations of state drinking water treatment regulations.
In the latest episode, drinking water distributed to New Brunswick, Milltown, and Franklin had not been in contact with chlorine for the required amount of time on eleven different dates in December 2014 and January 2015.
Public notice of the violations comes more than four months after the violations occurred, and three months after they were allegedly discovered at the utility, which was partially privatized after Mayor James Cahill quietly signed a deal with NJ American Water last summer.
It took almost a month for the city to even figure out there was any problem at all.
"The person who was supposed to check the [chlorine contact time]… Instead of checking it daily, he waited until the end of the month to check it," said Jim Cowley, an American Water employee who is one of the New Brunswick water system's two licensed operators.
That statement appears to be in conflict with what New Brunswick Today was told by the NJ Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), particularly that chlorine contact time was "monitored on an hourly basis."
"American Water has some serious explaining to do about how and why the health of New Brunswick residents was threatened, and why the community wasn't notified about these risks for almost four months," said Jim Walsh, NJ Director of Food & Water Watch.
Officials at the DEP downplayed the risk to public health, describing it as "really just an operational issue" and "not a major issue at all."
"The risk of anybody becoming ill from this was extremely, extremely unlikely," said DEP spokesperson Larry Hajna, who added that the only type of organism that could have survived the inadequate disinfection is known as Giardia.
Hajna noted that Giardia "has a harder cell and it's tougher to kill."
"And we have no evidence that that was ever an issue, or that was ever a problem."
Inadequate disinfection of drinking water was one of several problems that resulted in a state and federal investigation into the city's Water Utility in 2013.
Hajna told New Brunswick Today that the recent issues with disinfection were "no comparison to what happened before."
In November 2013, the city admitted that it had been submitting falsified reports to the DEP for over three years, repeatedly covering up water quality problems and keeping the public in the dark about the risks.
On seven different occasions between 2010 and 2013, residents legally should have been told to boil their water before use, but those notifications were never made, according to a public notice issued the day before Thanksgiving 2013.
The April 17 notice is not nearly as damning, but it was required by the DEP, according to multiple sources.
"The New Brunswick Water Utility, under the supervision of American Water Operations and Maintenance, Inc., failed to allow for proper contact time on December 6, 7, 13, 14, 17, 18, 19, 21, 26, 31 and January 3, 2015," reads the public notice.
"Inadequately treated water may contain disease-causing organisms, which can cause symptoms such as nausea, cramps, diarrhea, and associated headaches," it continues. "If you have experienced any of these symptoms and they persist, you may want to seek medical advice."
The notice stresses that "disinfectant residual levels and contact times since January 3rd and on all dates other than the dates listed above have met all state and federal requirements."
Without naming the person responsible, the notice goes on to attribute the failures to "monitoring errors."
"This was the result of monitoring errors on the part of the Licensed Operator in Charge," who was identified by DEP as Scott Baxter-Green of NJ American Water.
Baxter-Green is still an employee of the private water company, but is no longer affiliated with the New Brunswick treatment plant.
"Baxter-Green was transferred to another American Water facility, which was their decision," said Jennifer Bradshaw, a spokesperson for Mayor and Acting Water Director Cahill.
Spokespersons for NJ American Water did not immediately respond to phone or email messages.
Alexei Walus, a city employee who briefly served as Water Director before being demoted, has been the plant's T-4 licensed operator since February 10, according to DEP records.
Mayor James Cahill took over as the city's Water Director after demoting Walus for the "use of derogatory and inappropriate language."
Cahill's spokesperson said that between January and March the city was "in talks" with the DEP about the violations, which is why it took so long for the public notification to occur.
"The DEP asked for more information and it was given to them," said Bradshaw. "After we received the notification from the DEP in March, the City and American Water began work on a notice, which was released today."
The public notice of the violation comes just two days after this reporter told the City Council that the Water Utility "might not be meeting their numbers."
"The City Council has so far refused to investigate any of the numerous problems that have arisen at the New Brunswick Water Utility in recent years," said Walsh, whose Food & Water Watch organization has its NJ headquarters in New Brunswick.
"This lack of oversight from the council is continuing to jeopardize the health and well being of the entire community."
At least one member of the City Council was also kept in the dark about the violations in the four months since they occurred.
"I don't know nothing about it," said City Council President Kevin Egan, when reached via telephone by New Brunswick Today. "I'm gonna take a look at it."
"Of course I'm not happy when things go bad at the Water Department. I hope these are just hiccups," Egan told New Brunswick Today.
"If something's wrong in the past, we should be reprimanding whoever's responsible," while emphasizing that he was confident that the Mayor and Acting Water Director would right the ship.
"I'm confident that Jim Cahill and his administration are going to fix it… I'm sure Mayor Cahill wants to make it right because I'm sure he wants us to have a strong Water Department."
Under the section of the notice titled "What is being done?," the Water Utility says it has "raised the chlorine residual throughout the disinfection process and revised the facility’s standard operating procedures to include additional controls with respect to monitoring [contact time]."
"All treatment plant personnel have received additional training on the revised operating procedures associated with the disinfection process."
No punishments were mentioned, either for the city, American Water, or any of their employees.
Editor's Note: The author of this article was one of the leaders of the campaign that successfully prevented the sale of much of the City of Trenton's water system to American Water in 2010.
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 and a community organizer, and was an independent candidate for Mayor of New Brunswick in 2018.