Politics Threatens Needed Repairs at Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission Plant

January 17, 2013 | Politics
Hurricane Sandy damaged the PVSC plant in Newark, which requires repairs. But those repairs can't be complete because there are no commissioners to approve borrowing money for the projects because of political infighting.

By David Cruz
NJ Today

Everyone agrees that the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission treatment plant in Newark is in dire need of repair. As NJ Today found on a visit late last year, Hurricane Sandy had left the facility in near shambles.

“Not only did we lose the infrastructure, we lost our buildings, our administration building, our lab, our security building, they’re all compromised,” PVSC Executive Director Mike DeFrancisi said at the time. “We lost a hundred year’s worth of records, in some cases. We lost our computers, our T1 line; everything that makes the place go.”

Just getting the plant back on line has been a monumental task. The Army Corps of Engineers was called in to help on an emergency basis, but officials have done all they can do now. The next phase of work will cost millions and requires bonding — basically borrowing the money for it — something that needs approval by the commissioners. The problem is, there are no commissioners. A couple of years ago Gov. Chris Christie fired 71 people here, including all of the PVSC commissioners, after years of nepotism and outright corruption were uncovered.

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“Meanwhile, we have the executive director that’s trying to take every avenue he could possibly identify to paste up and fill up holes and keep leaks from running,” said State Sen. Ron Rice.

Rice is holding up two gubernatorial appointments to the commission by invoking senatorial courtesy, a tactic he’s used before to block other Christie appointments, including Paula Dow to the Superior Court and Christopher Cerf as education commissioner. Rice says he wants a Newarker appointed to the commission because Newarkers make up about 40 percent of the commission’s customers. Councilman Ron C. Rice, the senator’s son, was recommended by the city council.

“I will sign off on the Passaic Valley [commissioners],” said the senator. “I will not be the one painted [as an obstructionist], and I will sign off, once the city of Newark and Essex County get a representative to represent those ratepayers.”

The Christie administration is sticking to its guns. The governor wants his picks in. Rice says that’s not going to happen until he gets his pick — whether it’s his son or someone else. Meanwhile, the plant continues to spew untreated sewage and solid waste into Newark Bay, albeit at a much slower rate than two months ago.

“If it doesn’t get fixed before the summer, it can cause a real mess, with beach closings and people not being able to boat, and it’s not just the Newark Bay and Raritan Bay,” said Jeff Tittel, president of the New Jersey chapter of the Sierra Club. “It’s also in places like Sandy Hook and the coast because all that, um, stuff in the water will get out of the bay and into our beaches, so it could really be a disaster.”

With 1.5 million customers, the PVSC is the state’s largest treatment facility and fifth largest in the country. It’s still technically working, but not anywhere near optimum.

Sen. Rice says he doesn’t much care what anyone — including the governor — thinks about him. He says until a Newark commissioner gets green-lighted, the governor’s commissioners won’t get approved either and the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission won’t be able to complete important repairs. And that, everyone agrees, really stinks.