Piscataway water-main break shows urgent need for infrastructure upgrade, advocates say

Utility issues a rare ‘boil-water’ order for up to 150,000 people as precaution against contamination
Credit: (Jo Zimny Photos from Flickr; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
File photo: A boil-water order was issued on Monday for customers in nine towns after a drop in pressure caused by a water-main leak in Piscataway.

A major leak in a water main serving up to 150,000 people in New Jersey highlights the urgent need for pipe renewal, advocates said, as the U.S. Senate wrangles over a multibillion-dollar infrastructure bill that is expected to help the state repair its creaking network of lines, pumps and drains.

New Jersey American Water, the state’s largest investor-owned water utility, issued a rare boil-water order on Monday for about 44,000 customers in nine towns after a drop in pressure caused by the water-main leak in Piscataway.

Late Tuesday, the company said the leak had been “mostly isolated” and pressure was being restored. But it continued its order for householders to bring water to a rolling boil for one minute and to let it cool before using.

Customers should use boiled or bottled water for drinking, cooking, mixing baby formula, juices or drinks, washing vegetables and fruit, making ice, brushing teeth and washing dishes, the company said.

It also continued to give out one case per person of bottled water to residents at five sites in Piscataway and South Plainfield, and the company urged residents to keep their water use to essential needs only. The company said it may take up to 48 hours after repairing the main to confirm that the water is safe to drink, and instructed households to continue to boil their water until the order is officially lifted.

Towns in three counties

The towns, in Middlesex, Somerset and Union counties, are Clark, Dunellen, Edison, Green Brook, Linden, Middlesex, Piscataway, Roselle and South Plainfield.

Households in those and surrounding towns served by New Jersey American Water may experience discolored water as pressure is restored and should run cold taps only for three to five minutes until the water runs clear, the company said.

The order comes as the U.S. Senate continues to debate the size and nature of the infrastructure bill that could include significant funding for the renewal or repair of water infrastructure such as the Piscataway main.

Jersey Water Works, a nonprofit collaborative that advocates for the renewal of the state’s often-antiquated water infrastructure, has estimated that it would cost $25 billion over 20 years to bring the system up to a standard where leaks like the Piscataway incident could be avoided.

Andy Kricun, one of the new co-chairs of the collaborative, estimated that New Jersey could get about $3 billion of an expected $55 billion in new federal funding for such upgrades nationwide. When combined with earlier COVID-19 relief dollars and low-interest loans from the state’s Infrastructure Bank, the new money would be a substantial down-payment on the massive bill the state faces, he said.

The Piscataway leak may be the result of an old pipe, in which case it would be an example of the need for infrastructure renewal, or it could have been caused by a defective pipe, said Kricun, who made significant upgrades to the wastewater system in Camden County when he headed the county’s Municipal Utilities Authority.

“It is probably not due to lack of maintenance as water mains, when they are working properly, flow full,” he said. “It is probably due to aging infrastructure.” He said a boil-water order is very unusual, “as it should be.”

Waiting for federal funds

It’s not clear that New Jersey American Water, as a private company, would be eligible for any federal funds, Kricun warned.

But Brian Wahler, mayor of Piscataway, urged residents to press their federal representatives for completion of the federal infrastructure package, which he said would help prevent any such incidents in future.

“That money will help New Jersey as a whole, and Piscataway Township in upgrading some of these utility lines,” Wahler said in a video recorded Tuesday morning at the leak site and posted on the township’s website. “Instead of having the ratepayers pick up 100 percent of the costs, they will have the federal government pick up some of the costs.

“I think now everybody can understand why there needs to be an infrastructure bill. We want those members of Congress to do the right thing and take care of things like this,” he said.

Wahler said the repair was being made more difficult because the leak occurred at a site where three other water lines cross. “This is a monumental task,” he said.

Boil-water order, a ‘precaution’

Chelsea Kulp, a spokeswoman for the utility, said the boil-water order was “pretty unusual.” The last time the company issued such an order was in 2019, and for only 1,000 customers. “We have not had one of this size in many years,” she said.

The order was issued as a “precaution” against the possibility of micro-organisms entering the water supply because of the drop in pressure, she said, without being more specific.

But Kricun said the water supply could now be contaminated with bacteria, gasoline or other contaminants in unfiltered groundwater that leaks into the pipe because of the drop in pressure.

“So if the pressure drops, then a boil-water alert is basically mandatory as a precaution,” he said.

For her part, Kulp declined to say what caused the leak, how old the pipe is, or how much it will cost to fix. She said she couldn’t speculate on whether the leak would have happened if more funding had been available, but said the company spent $464 million just in 2020 on infrastructure renewal.

Asked whether the company expects to receive federal funding for infrastructure upgrades, Kulp said it will “certainly take advantage of any funds made available to us to support investments that help us continue to provide safe, reliable and affordable service to our customers.”

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