Days passed before boil water alert issued in Jersey City

Initial water tests on Aug. 11 near a Suez worksite near Christ Hospital in Jersey City tested positive for E. coli. But a citywide boil water advisory came three days later, leaving residents, including Councilman James Solomon, to wonder what took so long.

“You have mothers feeding infants formula with the water. You have people who are undergoing chemotherapy and are immuno-compromised. The fact that it took them so long to alert the city to a potential public health hazard is outrageous,” Solomon said.

Solomon, who says Suez has not reached out to the city council, wants an investigation into the chain of communication and what happened this time to break it. The water utility, which last year got a nine-year, $150 million extension on its exclusive contract to run the city’s water department, says there really wasn’t a delay.

“It’s standard procedure to take additional samples to confirm the initial result,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “We had to wait until we received confirmation that those additional samples tested positive and then contact local officials and the DEP.”

Mayor Steve Fulop agreed.

“The test is a random test that happened on Tuesday, the results come back Wednesday night. It tests differently than just straight E. coli initially, is my understanding goes. And so we had a conversation on how to deal with it and to have additional testing,” Fulop said. “And we actually had the conversation of who needs to be notified and how to make sure that everybody’s safe. And the right process right then and there was to notify Christ Hospital, which we did, and to do additional testing to see if it was upstream or downstream.”

But a statement from Suez over the weekend said the initial test on Aug. 11 indicated the presence of E. coli. Fulop says alerting the hospital made sense because the work was taking place just outside. He says in over 30,000 tests over the past 17 years there’s never been one positive test for E. coli and the city didn’t want to set off alarms unnecessarily.

Many residents said they would’ve liked to have had the option to be alarmed or not.

“The world is anxious. We’re at the edge of our seats of what’s next. And yes it’s a lot, but not to inform us? Now it will possibly cause a distrust with the information we’re receiving and are we getting it in time,” said Jersey City resident Lilia Diaz.

And, Diaz points out, in a city where 60% of residents are tenants, meaning they’re not directly customers of Suez Water, the word never officially got to them.

“So who was responsible for letting the tenants know? Like, we didn’t even do a citywide robocall to say, ‘Hey this is happening,'” she said. “Overall, the communications to the public was, just, there was too much of a gap and it’s dangerous at this time.”

“That needs to be addressed as well,” said Stephanie Brand, the director of the New Jersey Division of Rate Counsel. “It’s just really important. This has to be a priority.”

Just like water, information has to flow, not drip, in order to reach the most people.