What Happened to New Jersey’s Drinking-Water Watchdog?

Jon Hurdle | November 14, 2019 | Energy & Environment, Water
Enviros say science panel’s lack of meetings puts public health at risk

New Jersey environmentalists are pressing the Department of Environmental Protection to explain why a scientific panel that recommends improvements in drinking-water quality hasn’t met in almost a year.

The state’s Sierra Club wrote on Wednesday to DEP Commissioner Catherine McCabe, saying that the Drinking Water Quality Institute hasn’t held a public meeting since December 2018 despite what the environmental group said is an urgent need to set tough new health limits on contaminants.

Without the DWQI’s recommendations, New Jersey can’t regulate toxic substances such as PFAS chemicals, which have been linked to cancer, immune system problems and other illnesses, said the Sierra Club’s director, Jeff Tittel.

“With two proposed meetings in the spring canceled, and no future meeting set, New Jersey cannot move forward on any protective health-based regulations for drinking water,” Tittel said in the letter. He called this year’s absence of the panel from public view “concerning and unacceptable.”

The DEP did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In early November, the Environmental Working Group, a national clean-water advocate, said PFAS chemicals were found in more than 500 New Jersey water systems, according to data gathered from the DEP. The total represented a sharp increase over the past year, mostly because of a new reporting requirement for one type of PFAS chemical.

Researching water quality

The DWQI, which comprises academic scientists, government officials and water-industry executives, does exhaustive research into the safe levels of certain chemicals in drinking water and then recommends limits to the DEP, which decides whether to set regulations to enforce the standards.

In the past five years, the DWQI’s work has helped New Jersey become a national leader in setting strict health standards for some chemicals, notably those in the PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) family, which remain unregulated by the federal government.

Critics say the DEP is too slow to act on the recommendations, and so deprives the public of protection from the contaminants that DWQI has studied. The panel recommended new limits on two PFAS chemicals, PFOA (perfluorooctanic acid) and PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate), in 2017 and 2018, respectively, but those standards have not yet been formally adopted by the DEP. It took the agency almost four years to regulate PFNA (perfluorononanoic acid), another chemical from the PFAS family.

But the DEP did regulate another chemical, 1,2,3 trichloropropane (TCP), a carcinogenic chemical used in pesticides and solvents, following a recommendation from DWQI.

Some critics say the real source of the delay is not the DWQI — which has to move deliberately because it is doing groundbreaking science — but the DEP, which has failed to quickly implement recent recommendations. The DWQI resumed its work in 2014 after not meeting for nearly four years in what critics called a shutdown by the Christie administration.

“Since the DWQI has its own public participation process and receives input that they respond to publicly, it seems DEP should just be able to accept what the DWQI offers on a silver platter and swiftly propose a rulemaking for the MCL,” said Tracy Carluccio of the environmental group Delaware Riverkeeper Network, which advocates tougher limits on water contaminants. “But instead DEP seems to move in excruciating slow motion.”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the DEP had not yet regulated TCP, as recommended by the DWQI.