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Interactive Map: NJ Water Systems Out of Compliance with Federal Standards

A new report from the NRDC reveals that nearly 4.5 million residents are served by systems with at least one violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act

New Jersey had the fourth-largest number of people getting water from systems in violation of federal standards in 2015, according to a new report from the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The report, titled “Threats on Tap,” released on Tuesday found nearly 4.5 million residents, or just over half the total population, are served by systems out of compliance with at least one of the Safe Drinking Water Act’s standards for community water systems. That’s roughly double the national average of about 25 percent.

Follow this link to search a database of New Jersey water systems with at least one violation.

Almost three-quarters of the more than 1,000 individual violations issued were considered major and 6 percent were health-based, meaning the system exceeded federal standards for contaminants. The most common contaminant found was coliform, a bacteria that can cause serious illness, but there were also violations of the standards for potential carcinogens radium, gross alpha, and TTHM (total trihalomethanes), as well as a few instances of arsenic, lead, and nitrates.

Dangers of not testing

But even nonhealth violations, such as for inadequate monitoring, could be dangerous if the lack of water monitoring means officials don’t find harmful levels of contaminants in a water system because they are not testing for them.

“If there are some things they are not testing for, in some ways, that could be worse, because they could have a serious problem they don’t know about,” said Jeff Tittel, head of the New Jersey Sierra Club. He called New Jersey’s ranking “alarming.”

He said, and the NRDC report agrees, that the data — which came from an Environmental Protection Agency database — could be minimizing the problem because a lack of rigorous monitoring may mean not all contaminants are being found and reported.

“I think it undercounts our problems,” Tittel said. “We are not doing as much testing … This is only what is being reported by the water companies.”

Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, disputed that, saying the state is aggressive in its water testing and, as a result, it makes sense that more violations would be found.

“If there were no violations, we wouldn’t be doing our jobs,” Hajna said. “However, the violations that were recorded were mostly administrative and represented just a very small fraction of the testing that goes on routinely in our water systems.”

He also criticized the NRDC’s data crunching, saying DEP’s review of the data found 1,120 violations, with 76 being health-based, and vast majority of the health violations have been resolved or are in the process of being fixed. He also termed it “misleading” to correlate violations to population served, saying states that are not as aggressive at water monitoring as New Jersey look better when they may have more serious problems.

Tittel said that New Jersey’s water-quality problems can be attributed to several problems:

  • Because the state was once heavily industrialized, there are a lot of chemicals lingering in the soil and groundwater.

  • Runoff from New Jersey’s densely populated neighborhoods dump lawn fertilizers, road salt, and other contaminants into surface water.

  • The water infrastructure is typically older and not well-maintained, so lead and other heavy metals can leach from pipes into groundwater, as well as directly into tap water in homes.

Drinking-water crisis

“America is facing a nationwide drinking-water crisis that goes well beyond lead contamination,” said Erik Olson, health program director at the NRDC and a co-author of the report, which found almost 77 million Americans served by water systems with Safe Drinking Water Act violations. “The problem is twofold: there’s no cop on the beat enforcing our drinking water laws, and we’re living on borrowed time with our ancient, deteriorating water infrastructure. We take it for granted that when we turn on our kitchen tap, the water will be safe and healthy, but we have a long way to go before that is reality across our country.”

The report counted a total of 80,000 violations. Texas led the nation with 12 million people served by water systems in violation of federal law. Very small systems found in rural or sparsely populated areas accounted for more than half of all health-based violations, and nearly 70 percent of all violations, according to the report. New Jersey had its share of small systems having health violations, with 33 of 58 health violations found in systems serving fewer than 1,000 people.

“There’s a two-tiered drinking water system in this nation, and rural America is most at risk from the inequality. Small systems have the highest percentage of water violations, and it’s largely due to financial and technical capacity issues that will only get worse when the EPA cuts drinking-water programs,” said Mae Wu, an NRDC senior attorney.

Problems with large systems

New Jersey’s large systems had their share of violations, as well. The Suez New Jersey system, which serves nearly 800,000 people in north Jersey, had 23 violations; the Newark Water Department, serving 273,000 residents, had five health violations.

The report found repercussions for violations to be virtually nonexistent nationally, with nearly nine in 10 violations subject to no formal action, and just 3.3 percent given financial penalties.

According to the NRDC, drastic cuts proposed to the EPA budget would only worsen drinking-water woes across the country.

The organization called for several actions to improve the nation’s drinking water:

  • Improve water infrastructure and modernize drinking-water treatment plants, including the removal of as many as 10 million lead service lines.

  • Increase funding for water infrastructure, which would create millions of well-paid jobs fixing the nation’s water systems.

  • Strengthen and enforce existing regulations and establish new ones — for instance, many pharmaceuticals and industrial chemicals found in drinking water are not regulated.

  • Improve the testing system for drinking water contaminants.

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