NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—The city's embattled Water Utility, which also provides drinking water to customers in Milltown and Franklin, has admitted to violating drinking water standards yet again.
After more than two years without being caught violating state or federal drinking water laws, the city was issued a formal "notice of violation" on August 25, after three of its regular water testing sites were found to have exceeded the allowable amount of a common contaminant.
Nearly a month later, the public is now learning that this time it was excessive levels of Total Trihalomethanes (TTHM), organic chemicals that are the byproduct of the chlorine disinfection process, that caused the utility to be in violation.
"Sometimes, if the treatment's not done exactly right, it produces these byproducts (TTHM)," said Larry Hajna of the NJ Department of Environmental Protection (NJ-DEP), who confirmed the agency was forcing the city to notify the public of the violation.
"It is important to note that if TTHM levels continue to exceed the standard over a series of years, those who consume the water could be at higher risk of developing cancer or experiencing problems with their liver, kidneys or central nervous system," reads the announcement posted to the city website on September 23.
In the past the city has taken several months–or even years–to alert the public to problems with the quality of the drinking water being distributed to residents and businesses in New Brunswick, Milltown, and Franklin.
It's just the latest development in the ongoing saga at New Brunswick Water Utility, which saw its former licensed operator imprisoned this year following his guilty plea on charges of public corruption.
In 2007, Water Director Shawn Maloney committed suicide after learning he was the target of a federal investigation.
A "temporary" arrangement for Business Administrator Thomas Loughlin III to replace Maloney, and hold down two cabinet positions simultaneously, lasted five and a half years.
During that time, Water Treatment Plant Operator Edward O'Rourke falsified records to cover up problems that, in some cases, should have resulted in the city immediately alerting their customers to boil all water before use.
Officials took O'Rourke, a donor to Mayor James Cahill, out of operational control of the plant in June 2013, but O'Rourke remained on the payroll for several more months. He finally resigned in 2015.
O'Rourke was the only invidividual to be punished in the scandal, getting a three-year prison sentence after agreeing to have his water treatment license suspended for five years, and paying a fine.
The city government's struggles to recover from that scandal have led to a number of additional debacles, curious personnel changes, and an unpopular privatization effort.
After 15 months with a private company playing a key role in the public agency, which included a series of additional violations under licensed operators from New Jersey American Water, the city decided not to renew its expensive contract in September 2015.
The city kept those violations under wraps before announcing them more than four months after they occurred.
Among the curious personnel changes were two moves where Mayor Cahill put himself in charge of the utility, first as one Water Director jumped ship for a job at American Water and second, as the next Director was demoted for using a racial slur on the job.
During one of his stints as Acting Water Director, Cahill also was also challenged by New Brunswick Today, during an interaction where he declined to answer any questions about the controversial deal.
News of the most recent violation was first made public in a post on the city's website authored by Cahill's spokesperson Jennifer Bradshaw.
The city claims it has already taken corrective action in response to "elevated readings from the August samplings."
The TTHM contamination issue was not addressed at the City Council meeting on September 21 despite discussions about water quality and water testing in response to questions from this newspaper.
One of the Council members alluded to something that Bradshaw, the city's public information officer, was working on regarding the city's water, but the discussion never specifically touched on TTHM contamination or the city's recent violation.
The video from the meeting has not yet been made available on the city's website.
The four Council members present for the meeting did not respond to questions about when they learned of the latest water quality violation, and why it wasn't discussed at their recent meeting.
For her part, Bradshaw admits she knew about the violation but did not bring it up during the discussion. She spoke up briefly at the end of the meeting to alert the public to the upcoming Raritan River Festival.
"Yes, I did know about [the water quality violation] at the council meeting on Wednesday," Bradshaw told NBToday.
"We were still discussing what was being done… so we weren't ready for public issuance of that or public discussion of that."
Earlier in the meeting, this reporter asked about an "emergency procurement" for "membrane strainers" listed on the Council's agenda, and Water Director Mark Lavenberg responded, characterizing the purchase as "routine maintenance."
The last time New Brunswick Water Utility was caught in violation of water quality laws was when they were found to have committed a "treatment technique violation" during the temporary privatization.
More than four months after repeated violations in December 2014 and January 2015, the city ultimately admitted it had been distributing water that had not been in contact with chlorine for the required amount of time.
Still, the recent violations pale in comparison to the far more serious ones that the utility admitted to back in 2013. In that case, City Hall kept the matter under wraps and out of the press for even longer.
Bradshaw's predecessor Russell Marchetta even scoffed at the suggestion of an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) investigation into the Water Utility at a City Council meeting just weeks before the story broke.
"What kind of investigation, Secret Service?" Marchetta joked.
He later accepted responsibility for technical difficulties that he said kept the city from releasing his official video of that meeting, making it the only New Brunswick City Council meeting in recent history not documented by the city government in that fashion.
Marchetta later said he did not know about the criminal and regulatory investigations that were underway at the time.
Through an intermediary, the city also hired 1868 Public Affairs, a politically-connected public relations firm, to help the city break the news to the public of the horrific charges against the city.
Whatever confidence that had been restored in the utility in the months that followed was quickly lost after New Brunswick Today revealed the sudden departure of Water Director Frank Marascia, and the fact that Cahill had installed himself as Water Director and signed an emergency deal with New Jersey American Water in secret.
This time around, City Hall said it was addressing the latest issue "head on," indicating that "permanent infrastructure improvements" were already being designed, including "the installation of new sedimentation basins" and "additional cell membrane filtration trains."
During the few weeks that the city was sitting on the news that it had been caught in violation of drinking water standards for the third time in less than four years, the government says it was making "changes to its filtration and disinfectant process."
The city also claims that "follow-up testing has shown that TTHM levels have already significantly dropped at all three sites."
"Immediately following the elevated readings from the August samplings, the Water Utility began implementing measures to reduce the potential to form TTHM’s," reads the city's statement.
The main change articulated in the statement is that the city is increasing "the amount of potassium permanganate that is added to the water at intake points in our source waterways."
"Potassium permanganate is another method of disinfection that, unlike chlorine, does not cause the reactions that lead to the formation of TTHM’s," reads the statement.
"This increase is being done in balance with adjusted chlorine levels to further reduce the formation of TTHM’s."
The city also said it "will continue to sample TTHM levels on a more frequent basis than that required by the DEP to monitor the effects of these changes. "
At least one of the locations that exceeded the allowable level of TTHM's, the city's Department of Public Works headquarters on Jersey Avenue, is also the site of a recent environmental investgation.
The City Council voted to approve a site access agreement that would allow Amec Foster Wheeler Enviironment & Infrastructure to do testing on the property.
City officials said the testing was being done as a result of NJTransit's plans to expand a nearby railyard.
The other two locations, the Hyatt Regency Hotel on Albany Street and the Sears on Route 1, round out the list of sites where the inferior water was collected.
Testing for TTHM contamination is typically performed at eight different locations in the Hub City every three months, according to the city's statement.
If the "rolling average," the average over the last four quarterly tests, exceeds 80 parts per billion, "a violation is deemed to have occurred."
The city hypothesized that "higher than usual air temperature" may have had something to do with their recent violation.
Unfortunately, samples taken in early August showed unusually high levels above 80 ppb, which when averaged with the previous three quarters resulted in violations at three of the eight test sites; Sears, the Hyatt Regency Hotel and the City’s Public Works building. The TTHM levels averaged at these three locations were 88.94 ppb, 80.82 ppb and 81.89 ppb, respectively. Please note that increased water temperature caused by higher than usual air temperature like we have experienced this summer can be a key factor in the formation of TTHM’s.
This was not an emergency and you need not take any action. However, we believe that the public should be fully informed as to what happened and what the City is doing to rectify the issue.
The announcement, which Bradshaw characterized as informal, continued: "The cooling change in the weather will also help to mitigate the formation of TTHM’s and the chlorine residual will be re-adjusted as temperatures dip to ensure no break in the quality of water treatment."
The NJ-DEP did not immediately respond to a question about the city's statements regarding "higher than usual air temperature."
However, one clean water advocate said the elevated TTHM levels in New Brunswick were indeed a "reminder" that climate change can have a big impact on the planet's drinking water supplies.
"These violations are an unfortunate reminder of the impact a warming planet can have on our drinking water, and the importance of ensuring adequate investment in drinking water systems," said Jim Walsh, the NJ Director of Food & Water Watch, a national organization with a large base of support in New Brunswick.
Walsh also alluded to other contaminants that can be found in New Jersey drinking water, including lead, chromium 6, and Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).
"As communities across the state are finding harmful [contaminants] in their drinking water, we need a comprehensive and dedicated federal funding source to support public drinking water systems so that people can trust their water is safe," Walsh said.
Indeed, lead in drinking water, especially in school buildings, has been a hot topic in America this year, with the contamination of water in Flint, Michigan inspiring protests and discussions across the country.
New Brunswick's school district tested its water fountains for lead earlier this year, but only after a reporter at this newspaper requested copies of the most recent results under the Open Public Records Act (OPRA).
For the first time in six years, the district tested its drinking water sources for lead.
The results were not good, with one elementary school water fountain testing more than 12 times the legal limit, and a total of fourteen faucets in six schools exceeding the federal standard.
The New Brunswick Board of Education (BOE) made matters worse by initially refusing to release any details regarding the lead testing results at a public meeting in May, before caving to pressure from this newspaper and other community advocates the following day.
BOE President Emra Seawood has found herself under increasing scrutiny over her claims that the district was "proactive" in its water testing program.
On September 20, Seawood told this reporter to "sit your ass down" following a series of questions and criticisms regarding its recent lead testing.
"I don't know what the hell he's talking about," Seawood said, in reference to this reporter, earlier in the meeting.
The comments came just one meeting removed from when Seawood gave a speech calling for everyone to be treated with "dignity, honor, and respect."
Meanwhile, the city government insists it is going above and beyond the public notice requirements of the state, promising a "more formal" notice would be issued in the coming days.
"We wanted you to have this information while we await approval of the proposed formal notice by the DEP," read the city's notice.
The announcement does not mention Mayor James Cahill or Water Director Mark Lavenberg. It instead directs "anyone with questions about the quality of their drinking water" to contact Bradshaw at (732) 745-5004.
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.