State, Environmentalists Clash Over New Rules for Water Quality

DEP may change policy for regulating nitrates, pollutant found in fertilizer considered to be harmful to infants

When wastewater treatment plants lost power during Hurricane Sandy, they dumped untreated sewage into NJ's waterways.
The state is looking at revamping its rules governing surface-water quality standards, a move some environmentalists fear could adversely affect drinking water and drive up costs for consumers.

No proposal has been issued yet by the state Department of Environmental Protection, but the outlines of what may be suggested were presented at an invitation-only stakeholders meeting in June at the agency’s headquarters in Trenton.

The controversy revolves around new standards under consideration for controlling nitrates, a pollutant found in fertilizers, and how both sewage treatment plants and drinking-water facilities deal with the chemicals.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, nitrates in drinking water could pose a serious health risk to infants less than six months old. Nitrates also contribute to the eutrophication of bodies water like Barnegat Bay, creating thick plant growth that kills fish and other animals by oxygen starvation. It also leads to algae blooms that upset the ecological balance of the bay, according to scientists.

But DEP officials, in a presentation made to stakeholders, said the changes would enhance protections at existing surface-water intakes and protect future potable water sources. Many New Jersey residents rely on surface water from rivers for their drinking water, mostly from the Passaic River and the Raritan River.

In the presentation, DEP argued that the new approach is more stringent than the existing rules for major dischargers (wastewater treatment plants). Minor discharges will get relief from the limits under the new approach and nitrates will be controlled where they are known to be a problem.

Environmentalists disagreed.

“This is little proposal is the biggest rollback in water protections in the state of New Jersey in decades,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “This will have dire consequences on drinking water supplies and water quality for years to come.’’

Bill Wolfe, New Jersey director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (NJPEER), said the DEP’s proposed new approach fails to consider the ecological impacts of nitrogen on waterways.

“It ignores longstanding historical policy of ‘source water protection’ — that the policy burden on the wastewater dischargers is to protect water supplies — and shifts quite a bit of the cost and compliance burden onto the water purveyors,’’ Wolfe said.

In the Passaic River, there are 72 sewage plants discharging into the waterway, which supplies potable water to millions of customers in the region, according to Tittel. In the Raritan River, there are 60 such plants discharging into the river, also a major source of drinking water, he said.

Larry Ragonese, a spokesman for the DEP, rebutted the accusations leveled by environmentalists. He noted that a representative from U.S. EPA Region’s II office, which oversees New Jersey and New York, was in attendance at the stakeholder meeting and expressed support for the concept.

“The overall goal of the proposal is to increase protections in streams over current levels where there are existing or planned potable-water intakes, and in streams where there are no potable-water intakes,’’ Ragonese said in an email message.

Peggy Gallos, executive director of the Association of Environmental Authorities, a trade group representing wastewater treatment plants, said the standards are actually getting tighter, particularly for the Passaic River.

“It’s still a proposal and we’re looking at it, but it’s a step in the right direction,’’ according to Gallos.

Tittel disagreed. “It is going to cause more expense for treatment at water supply facilities,’’ he said.

“Something that sounds like a little wonky change will actually have huge consequences because it will change (how we) measure and regulate the amount of stuff coming out of sewer plants,’’ he said. “This means there will be more stuff in our waterways.’’