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DEP Accepts Plan to Curb Toxic Chemical in NJ’s Drinking Water

Surveys have shown the presence of PFNA in New Jersey’s public water systems is much higher than the national rate

water testing

New Jersey is on the way to implementing a tough new standard on the presence of a toxic chemical in drinking water, adopting the recommendation of a state scientific panel for the first time in more than six years.

Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin has accepted a proposal by the Drinking Water Quality Institute to establish a Maximum Contaminant Limit (MCL) of 0.013 parts per billion for perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA), said DEP spokesman Bob Considine, some 20 months after the panel made the recommendation.

PFNA, which was used in textile coatings, stain repellants, and food packaging, has been linked to some cancers in humans and to reproductive and developmental problems in animals.

The new standard is stricter than the DEP’s existing “guidance” level of 0.02 parts per billion, and follows recent surveys showing the presence of PFNA in New Jersey’s public water systems is much higher than the national rate.

“Commissioner Martin already accepted the recommendation and directed staff to work up a proposal for a MCL for PFNA,” Considine said on Tuesday, in response to a question from NJ Spotlight about the status of the measure.

Martin’s acceptance of the proposed health standard, which has been long-awaited by clean-water campaigners, was made last year but not announced because the DEP doesn’t announce every stage of a rulemaking, Considine said.

The measure is now going through the regulatory process, which includes consultation with stakeholders, a public-comment period and then a hearing, all of which will take 12-18 months, Considine said.

When the process is complete, water companies will have to comply with the new rule by installing carbon filtration or other technologies in water sources where the chemical exceeds the limit. They may also have the option of blending water with cleaner sources or simply shutting wells that don’t meet the new standard.

A study by the DWQI released in April 2015 found the chemical in 2.5 percent of the public water systems tested was at levels that exceeded the guidance standard. That compared with just 0.2 percent nationwide.

An earlier study by the DEP found PFNA and related chemicals in 67 percent of 31 municipal systems tested in 20 counties during 2009 and 2010. The highest level of PFNA — about seven times the new standard — was found near the South Jersey town of Paulsboro where Solvay Specialty Polymers manufactured the chemical between 1985 and 2010.

Environmentalists welcomed the DEP’s acceptance of the new standard, and said the move was unexpected.

“That is news to me,” said Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, which has campaigned for PFNA and other PFCs to be regulated by New Jersey. “It is, of course, what we’ve been advocating for but there has not been a public announcement.” She called the DEP’s decision “great news.”

The DEP’s move marks its first acceptance of a DWQI recommendation since 2010 when the panel stopped meeting for almost four years, a break that critics called a shutdown by the Christie administration. When it restarted with new members and a new chairman in 2014, it began work on PFNA and made its recommendation in April 2015.

The panel, consisting of government officials, academics, and water company executives, is now finalizing its work on PFOA, another chemical in the PFC family.

Dr. Keith Cooper, a Rutgers University toxicologist who chairs the panel, said he has not been involved in the policy process on PFNA, and noted that the DWQI’s work is strictly scientific.

Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, welcomed the DEP’s move. “This is the first time the DEP has accepted the recommendation of its own scientists in its seven years in office,” he said.

The technology that will allow water companies to comply with the new regulation is available and not too costly, O’Malley said. “It’s not going to break the bank,” he said. “This is a problem that we can start to solve.”

Jon Hurdle is a writer based in Philadelphia. He often covers environmental issues.

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