The state’s failure to establish drinking-water standards for a range of toxic contaminants, some recommended a dozen years ago, came under harsh scrutiny and criticism from legislators yesterday.
Nevertheless, the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee held a bill to require the Department of Environmental Protection to adopt new standards for 16 substances, largely on the urging of a top agency executive.
The outcome disappointed environmentalists who have been lobbying for action on the contaminants for years. They had hoped to press the Legislature to force the DEP to act, especially in the wake of reports of lead in drinking water in schools and hospitals, chromium in more than 100 water systems, and other toxics in supplies in South Jersey.
The dispute stems from long-ago recommendations developed by the state Drinking Water Quality Institute, an advisory panel of scientists and academics, to establish tough new drinking-water standards for radon, perchlorate, vinyl chloride, and other contaminants. The institute recommended the perchlorate standard in 2005, and the others in 2009.
Under current law, the recommendations go to the DEP, but in this case it never acted upon them. If the bill (S-2468) were enacted, the commissioner of the agency would have 60 days to propose rules establishing new standards for the toxics.
John Gray, deputy chief of staff at the agency, called the timeframe arbitrary, and one that would be almost impossible for the department’s scientists to adequately meet.
“What this bill will do is erode the commissioner’s independent authority,’’ Gray said. “Having this bill will ties the commissioner’s hands to what his priorities are.’’
Sen. Samuel Thompson (R-Burlington) acknowledged the 60-day timeframe might be too short, but criticized the agency’s lack of action. “I find it inexcusable that you go 12 years without any kind of response and then you go eight years without a response,’’ he told Gray.
Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth) also questioned whether the agency had been proactive enough. “If they haven’t acted, then that could mean things could be in our drinking water that are not safe,’’ she said.
David Pringle, campaign director of New Jersey’s Clean Water Action, and a former member of the drinking institute, was more adamant. “Radon kills more people every year than any other contaminant in our drinking water,’’ he said.
“Every day of delay means our families are impacted by these chemicals,’’ agreed Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club.
But Sen. Kevin O’Toole (R-Essex) backed Gray, saying the legislation, if enacted, would undermine the commissioner’s authority and questioned whether it would “gut’’ the drinking-water standards.
Pringle, who served on the drinking water panel until 2010, disputed that. “The problem is political interference from the governor’s office,’’ he said, blaming the DEP. “It hasn’t been acting and it hasn’t been complying with the law.’’
Most of the new standards were recommended in 2009 in the final year of the Corzine administration, which, too, never acted on them. After Gov. Chris Christie took office, there was a nearly four-year hiatus when the Drinking Water Quality Institute never met.
Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), the chairman of the committee, called for better collaboration between the DEP and the drinking water panel. He said he would hold the bill for 30 days, and urged the DEP to come in with a plan that resolves the issues raised at the hearing.
Earlier in the day, meanwhile, the Senate Environment and Energy Committee heard industry, local officials, and environmentalists discuss how extensive a problem chromium contamination in public water supplies is. A report released last fall said more than 150 New Jersey water systems had the carcinogenic chemical, chromium 6, in their supplies.
Industry officials said the levels were below levels established by the federal Environmental Protection Agency and a standard established in California. Environmentalists argued the contaminant poses a health risk not only from drinking water, but from inhaling it while bathing.