Thirty-one years ago New Jersey policymakers latched onto a bold idea: set up a science-based institute to establish standards to curb a range of potentially harmful contaminants then showing up with alarming frequency in the public’s drinking water.
For the most of that time, the 15-member Drinking Water Quality Institute worked diligently at its task, eventually setting standards for more than 100 pollutants and requiring water suppliers not to exceed those levels.
That was then, this is now. The institute has met only once in the past four years, the last time coming a few weeks after Gov. Chris Christie’s first inaugural. It has not adopted a new standard or revised one since early 2009, dating back to the days of the Corzine administration.
To some that record is disconcerting. “I think the Christie administration isn’t showing very much concern for water quality,’’ said Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union), who sponsored the original legislation setting up the institute. “It’s very troubling.’’
Lesniak steered his bill through the Legislature at a time when residents and lawmakers were troubled by reports that harmful chemicals from landfills and other locations that eventually wound up on the Superfund list of toxic waste sites were leaching into drinking water. New Jersey ended up having more sites on the national list than any other state.
But concerns about the quality of drinking water supplies or potential impact on public health have hardly faded from public concern, especially in the nation’s most densely populated state with one of the country’s most heavily industrialized bases.
The failure to set or revise standards is underscored by a controversy raging now in Paulsboro in South Jersey, where levels of PFNA, or perfluorononanoic acid have been found in drinking water. No standards have been established at either the federal or state level, even though environmental groups suspect the chemical is linked to health problems. Its source is tied to a chemical company in a nearby town.
The Drinking Water Quality Institute hasn’t met since February 2010 because of four public vacancies on the panel, according to Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.
The institute is part of the DEP, which is hoping it can soon resume its meetings, Hajna said. “We were targeting last year, but it hasn’t happened.’’ No new nominees to the institute, however, have been named.
Still, he defended the state’s efforts to protect New Jersey’s water supplies. “We’ve got drinking water quality standards for all the contaminants that are of concern,’’ he said.
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, argued otherwise, saying the science backing up the problems caused by potentially harmful pollutants is advancing every day, yet the state is failing to recognize those issues.
“People are drinking water that could put them at risk,’’ according to Tittel. “The science has changed. The more we know about these chemicals, the more we know even at low levels they pose a risk.’’
It’s not just the institute that has failed to meet since 2010. The same hold for the subcommittees tasked with the difficult job of establishing maximum contaminant levels for potentially harmful pollutants, the proper ways to treat them to remove them from drinking water, or ways to correctly test whether they are in potable water supplies.
A separate committee to evaluate the risks of radon in drinking water, a big concern in South Jersey, has not met since December 2007.
Lesniak was upset by the lack of action. “I assume they were doing their job,’’ he said. “Our governor doesn’t have the same concerns with water quality as I do.’’