New Program Could Help Keep Sewage from Flooding State’s Waterways

Tom Johnson | September 12, 2014 | Energy & Environment
Assembly committee passes bill that would allow certain cities and towns to set up so-called stormwater utilities to help get pollution in check

Assemblywoman Grace Spencer
When it rains, it sometimes pours, which can be a problem for New Jersey’s waterways, because in many locations overwhelmed wastewater treatment plants can end up spewing raw sewage into the state’s rivers and bays.

It is a problem long neglected by the state’s urban areas and policymakers, who have largely failed to deal with the issue, in part perhaps it could impose huge costs, amounting to $14 billion, according to some projections.

Few dispute the need to end the pollution. The current system, dubbed combined sewer overflow (CSO), collects sewage as well as stormwater during heavy storms, and can threaten human health because sewage sometimes backs ups in homes and streets. The pollution can also lead to the closure of beaches and shellfish beds.

In an attempt to deal with the problem, a legislative committee yesterday approved a bill (A-1583) that would allow 21 urban communities with CSOs to set up stormwater utilities to help deal with the problem. The utilities would be allowed to assess fees on owners of parking lots and other paved areas where runoff from storms overwhelms the local sewage treatment plant’s capacity to adequately treat wastewater.

“Rainwater that is not absorbed into the ground or evaporated carries contaminants from laws, streets, buildings and parking lots and deposits them into our water sources,’’ said Assemblywoman Grace Spencer (D-Essex), the sponsor of the bill and chairman of the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee, which released the measure.

The bill won wide support from environmentalists.

“We have a wastewater problem along our shores, when it rains, the sewage is degrading water quality,’’ said Ed Potosnak, executive director of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters. “This is a good step to finding a way to deal with that problem.’’

But some business groups disagreed.

Dave Brogan, a vice president of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, said the bill could amount to double taxation for those companies already paying fees for stormwater permits to the state Department of Environmental Protection. “Any added costs make it more difficult to compete,’’ Brogan said, referring to the business climate.

Others disputed that argument, saying much of the stormwater pollution problems fall on homeowners, not businesses, particularly those companies that pay nothing for the stormwater flowing into CSOs from buildings and parking lots they own.

“What a stormwater utility attempts to do is it tries to make it a little bit more equitable,’’ said Nicholas Dickerson, a planning and policy consultant for New Jersey Future, which has done a lot of research on the issue.

He argued the bill does not mandate that communities adopt the volunteer stormwater utility program. “It’s not a new tax,’’ Dickerson said, adding that it’s a fee on places generating stormwater that contributes to the CSO problem.

Many other states have adopted similar programs, according to Michael Pisauro, legislative director of the New Jersey Environmental Lobby. The system is in place in 39 and Washington D.C., he said.

The New Jersey League of Municipalities also backed the bill, saying it only applies to 21 communities in the state, such as Perth Amboy, Newark, Paterson, and Camden.

“It’s a problem that is not going away,’’ said Michael Cerra, director of government affairs for the league.

For those communities, however, time may be running out. The DEP earlier this year finished issuing new draft permits for each municipality that establish a tight timeframe for the adoption of long-term control plans. Once adopted and approved by the DEP, the cities have two to three years to develop the plans and begin implementation.

Whether the bill released yesterday will help achieve that goal is uncertain. Gov. Chris Christie vetoed two similar bills passed by the Legislature.