Explainer: Water-Quality Watchdog Getting Ready to Get Back to Work

The Drinking Water Quality Institute was out of the loop between 2010 and 2014. Is it back in business?

New Jersey’s oversight of drinking water is provided by the Drinking Water Quality Institute, a panel of experts that was established by law in the 1980s but which has been conspicuous by its absence in recent years. In 2014, it restarted work with an investigation of PFCs, a class of chemicals that has been found in water systems throughout the state, and which has been linked to cancer and developmental issues. The Institute is expected to deliver its report to the Department of Environmental Protection in March.

What is the Drinking Water Quality Institute? It’s a statutory panel of academic scientists, government environmental and health officials, and executives from regulated water systems who together advise the state on water quality. The DWQI’s 15 members make recommendations on testing for and treatment of contaminants in public water supplies, and produce research on the health effects of those substances.

How are DWQI members selected? Three of its members, including the chairman, are appointed by the governor; three by the Senate president; and three by the Speaker of the State Assembly. The others include water experts from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection.

Does it have any power? It doesn’t implement water-quality regulations but is responsible for advising the Department of Environmental Protection about levels of drinking-water contaminants that could be hazardous to human health, and advising on the implementation of the state’s drinking-water quality program.

Why should we care? Because DWQI is a principal source, along with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, of scientific information to the state agency that regulates what’s in our drinking water. Without data from the DWQI, the DEP is less likely to keep our water supplies healthy.

The panel has been inactive for most of the past four years, and only resumed its work in 2014. After being set up by the New Jersey Safe Drinking Water Act of 1984, it stopped holding public meetings in 2010 and didn’t restart until April 2014 when it launched a project to investigate contamination by perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) in public water systems. PFCs, which are used in household items such as stain-resistant carpeting and water-resistant clothing, have been linked to cancer and developmental problems. The panel’s new chairman, Rutgers University toxicologist Keith Cooper, said at last April’s meeting that the panel would meet three or four times a year, but it has not done so since then.

Now, it plans to meet in February or early March, Cooper told NJ Spotlight. The meeting will hear presentations from three subcommittees that have been looking into the treatment, testing, and health effects of PFNA, PFOA and PFOS, three types of PFCs. The panel will use that information to make a recommendation, probably in March, to DEP Commissioner Bob Martin on the maximum contaminant levels (MCL) that should be set to ensure that the chemicals don’t exceed levels in drinking water at which people’s health might be affected.

The latest delay in the DWQI’s meeting schedule has taken place “in order for us to make sure that we are not missing some important endpoint,” Cooper said, referring to its research on whether the PFCs being studied are toxic.

Meanwhile, the DEP has been working independently with municipalities where PFCs have been found in the water. A long-awaited DEP study issued in May 2014 found the chemicals in two-thirds of 31 municipal water systems tested in 20 counties during 2009 and 2010. The most common PFC was PFOA, which was found in more than half of the samples, the report said.

Does DEP always accept DWQI’s recommendations? No. In 2010, Commissioner Martin delayed adopting a DWQI recommendation for listing perchlorate, a chemical that has been linked to thyroid problems, saying there was insufficient data to support setting a maximum contaminant level (MCL), and that he would wait until the EPA had completed its own study on the chemical. In 2009, DWQI recommended listing five new chemicals, and changing the MCLs for 10 others. The DEP did not act on any of the 2009 recommendations, according to a DWQI source.

Why didn’t DWQI meet for such a long time, and why hasn’t it resumed regular public meetings since restarting last year? It depends who you ask. Cooper told NJ Spotlight that there has been no public meeting since April 2014 because “it takes time” to work through a mass of research on PFCs and produce recommendations that are actionable by the DEP. At last year’s meeting, he said the panel had been dormant since 2010 because many members had been preoccupied with water-quality issues in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, and because it had a number of unfilled vacancies.

Do most environmentalists accept that explanation? No. They say the DWQI’s near-silence since 2010 is either the result of pressure by the chemical industry on the Christie administration, or on Gov. Chris Christie’s desire to show potential presidential voters that he has resisted regulation that would increase costs for New Jersey industry — or both.

Delaware Riverkeeper Network’s Deputy Director, Tracy Carluccio, said Christie “shut down” the panel in 2010 because the Chemistry Council of New Jersey, a trade association, didn’t want the DWQI recommending standards for substances that chemical manufacturers were using. Elvin Montero, a spokesman for the Chemistry Council, said it was not involved in any decision to halt the DWQI’s work. “That’s not the case,” he said.

New Jersey Sierra Club Director Jeff Tittel said DWQI’s inactivity reflects the governor’s national political ambitions. “He wants to show the right he has not added new regulations or tougher standards,” Tittel said.

Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the DEP, said the four-year hiatus reflected the time taken to replace the previous chairman, Mark Robson, Dean of Agricultural and Urban Programs at Rutgers University, and some members.

PFNA sounds familiar. Why? Because it’s the chemical that was found in public water in the South Jersey borough of Paulsboro in 2013, prompting officials to shut down one well, and leading state officials to advise parents to use only bottled water for young children. Concerns about the safety of Paulsboro’s water also led the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Control to conduct its own investigation. The suspected source of the contamination was Solvay Solexis, a manufacturer that no longer uses the chemical.

Did the Paulsboro contamination exceed a legal limit? No, because there isn’t one, but it did exceed a statewide “guidance level” of 0.02 parts per billion set by DEP. That’s well below the 0.096 ppb found in Paulsboro.

Although a guidance level does not allow DEP to require that a water supplier complies with specific contaminant levels, water purveyors typically do so in practice, making the guidance level effectively equivalent to the MCL, said the DEP’s Hajna. The DEP sets MCLs on the basis of advice from both DWQI and EPA, he said.

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