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Price Tag for Cleaning Up Wastewater Treatment in NJ Could Run to $17 Billion

One big driver: Wastewater often ends up in rivers New Jerseyans rely on for drinking water

water wastewater

New Jersey needs to invest more than $17 billion over the next five years to improve its aging wastewater-treatment plants and the pipes for those systems, according to a new survey by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The huge expense is part of a projected $271 billion the nation has to spend to maintain and improve the technology for treating sewage and managing the runoff of pollution into the country’s waters, the agency said.

The staggering cost is no surprise given that officials, industry executives, and engineers have long been warning about the need to invest in these systems, many of which were also badly damaged by record flooding during Hurricane Sandy.

“It’s a big problem and we know we need to do something,’’ acknowledged Peggy Gallos, executive director of the Association of Environmental Authorities, a trade association representing public treatment plants. “How are we going to pay for this? That’s where the real complication comes in.’’

“It’s an extraordinary number, but it is the price of decades of neglect for our nation’s infrastructure,’’ agreed Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey.

The need for adequate treatment of wastewater plays a vital role in the health of streams, rivers, and lakes where discharged sewerage and stormwater runoff end up. In New Jersey, that is a particular problem because of aging systems and the fact that wastewater often winds up in rivers used for drinking water.

“The only way to have clean and reliable water is to have infrastructure that is up to the task,’’ said the EPA’s Acting Deputy Administrator for Water Joel Beauvais in a statement released by agency. “Our nation has made tremendous progress in modernizing our treatment plants and pipes in recent decades, but this survey tells us that a great deal of work remains.’’

In New Jersey, the biggest expenditures are for fixing combined sewer overflow systems, where stormwater and untreated sewage empty into waterways during heavy rainfall. The projected cost in 2012 dollars for New Jersey is approximately $8 billion, according to the survey.

Twenty-five cities and utilities here are in process of obtaining permits and developing five-year plans to deal with longstanding pollution problems from systems that spew raw sewage into waterways, including the Hudson, Passaic, and Delaware Rivers.

The state will provide low-cost loans through a special trust fund to offset a portion of those costs. Some cities, like Philadelphia, have managed to limit those costs by capturing stormwater runoff, reducing paved areas, and creating green areas where water can be absorbed.

To many, the advantage of solving the problem is tied to urban-renewal efforts. “There’s tremendous benefits to reducing stormwater runoff, increasing access to waterways, and cleaning them up,’’ O’Malley said.

Nationwide, the projected cost of dealing with the problem of combined sewer-overflow systems is projected to run $48 billion.

New Jersey’s costs for moving to secondary wastewater treatment are estimated at $1.6 billion, compared with a nationwide expense of $52 billion. Secondary treatment uses biological processes to meet the minimum level of treatment required by law.

New Jersey also faces $5 billion in costs related to advanced wastewater treatment, which removes unconventional or toxic pollutants, such as nitrogen, phosphorous, ammonia, or metals.

Like New Jersey, the federal government has set up a Clean Water State Revolving Fund to provide low-interest loans, handing out $111 billion since its inception in 1987.There’s another similarity: New Jersey’s fund -- the Environmental Infrastructure Trust -- and the federal program both have far less financial resources than the projected need.

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