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Presenting New Standard, Water Panel Seeks to Rebuild Reputation

Committee ready to move on to next two contaminants in New Jersey’s drinking water

Keith Cooper
Dr. Keith Cooper, chairman of the Drinking Water Quality Institute.

The chairman of a panel that advises New Jersey officials on water quality said on Wednesday he hopes the panel’s latest recommendation will help restore the state’s leadership in water protection, but said it was unclear when the plan would be implemented.

Dr. Keith Cooper, chairman of the Drinking Water Quality Institute, acknowledged it has taken about a year for the panel to deliver its advice on the toxic chemical perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA) but predicted the pace will pick up for upcoming research on two related chemicals, since some of the groundwork has been laid by the latest project.

“New Jersey was the leader, and I would like to put it back on the list of the leaders,” Cooper told a public meeting of the institute -- its first since April 2014, and only its second since 2010 -- at which officials presented their findings on PFNA.

The institute will recommend to Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin that the state establish a maximum contaminant limit (MCL) of 0.013 parts per billion as the safe health limit for the chemical in drinking water, a plan that was formally presented at Wednesday’s meeting.

If approved, the new limit would make New Jersey the first state in the country to set a MCL for PFNA, said Jessie Gleason, a Department of Health researcher who chaired the DWQI subcommittee on health effects.

The recommendation is subject first to a 30-day public comment period and then to a series of official approvals that would eventually lead to adoption of the MCL, allowing the state to regulate the chemical’s level in public water systems. Cooper, a professor of toxicology at Rutgers University, said he didn’t know how long the process would take.

The proposed MCL is lower than the current “guidance” level set by the DEP as the upper limit for drinking water. Cooper called the new limit “stringent” and said he was confident it would protect the public from the chemical that has been linked to some cancers in humans and reproductive and developmental problems in animals.

After criticism from environmental groups that the DWQI was effectively shut down by the Christie administration from 2010 to 2014, and since then has been dragging its feet on setting clean-water standards, Cooper said he hoped the panel would meet every four months from now on.

Reminded that he made a similar pledge at last April’s meeting, Cooper held up a 174-page report by the panel’s health-effects subcommittee that determined the latest recommendation, and said the science can’t be done overnight.

But he noted that the panel’s next projects, on the chemicals perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), could be quicker because they are treated in the same way as PFNA, and therefore won’t require separate research by another subcommittee. The chemicals, whose uses include nonstick cookware and stain-resistant fabrics, belong to the perfluorinated compound (PFC) family, which is not currently regulated by either New Jersey or the federal government. Cooper said work has already started on recommending a MCL for PFOA, the next chemical to be evaluated in a program set by Martin.

Water quality is a tough issue in New Jersey because of its densely populated and highly industrialized history, Cooper said, but argued that the DWQI, consisting of government officials, academics, and water company executives, is not the only official body watching for contaminants.

“We are the DWQI but that doesn’t mean that other agencies like the Department of Health and the Department of Environmental Protection are not looking at compounds in their everyday work,” he said.

Some towns and companies that have discovered potentially hazardous chemical levels in their water supplies have shut down wells or installed technology to remove the contaminants.

Anthony Matarazzo, Senior Director of Water Quality and Environmental Management at New Jersey American Water, said the company installed granular activated carbon filters at its Pennsgrove plant in 2014, at a capital cost of $12.2 million, after discovering three PFCs in its water at close to a current “guidance” level set by the DEP.

The cost was “minimal” when it was added to the bills of the company’s 1 million customers, said Matarazzo, who sat on a subcommittee looking into the treatment for PFNA, but would not be for a municipal water system with much less ability to spread the cost.

Regardless of the size of a water system, the existence of an MCL will help officials justify higher rates. “The MCL makes it easier to get the increase in your rates,” he said.

Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of the environmental group Delaware Riverkeeper Network, praised the panel for its work but said the simple recommendation of a water-quality standard would not ensure safe drinking water unless it was implemented.

“In 2014, we were concerned, and here we are a year later and we are still concerned that the problem is still there,” said Carluccio, whose group has pushed for tougher regulation of PFCs.

Jon Hurdle is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia.

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