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DEP Report finds widespread drinking water contamination

August 28th, 2008 Leave a comment Go to comments

Residents of over 50,000 NJ homes drinking polluted water – 12.5% of wells fail to meet standards
[Update: Here is today’s APP story – DEP is merely responding – this is bad news they would have preferred to have stayed under the media radar:
State: 1 in 8 private wells contaminated
Officials urge more testing

According to a DEP report required by the Private Well Testing Act, residents of over 50,000 NJ homes are unknowingly drinking unsafe well water, yet DEP and local health officials are ignoring the problem.
DEP estimates that there are over 400,000 private residential drinking water wells in NJ. Over 51,000 of these wells have been sampled, but 350,000 have not.
DEP data from 2002 – 2007 indicate that 12.5 % of over 51,000 residential wells that were sampled fail to meet drinking water standards and are polluted. This rate does not include more than 18% of sampled wells poisoned by toxic lead. Assuming that this large data set and 12.5% failure rate are representative of all 400,000 wells, means that more than 50,000 NJ households are drinking unsafe water.
According to a Report just released by DEP:
“A total of 55,749 well water samples were analyzed from 51,028 separate wells during the period of September 2002 to April 2007. The samples results are biased using the highest test result value when more than one sample was collected at the same property. The 51,028 wells sampled represents about 13% of the estimated 400,000 private wells used for drinking water in New Jersey. (click on link for full Report:http://www.nj.gov/dep/pwta/pwta_report_final.pdf
Here’s how the well contamination – by pollutant and county – is distributed across the State:

Primary Contaminants: Protecting Human Health
Primary Drinking Water Standards are established for contaminants that have either an immediate or long-term effect on human health. Based on the results of the 51,028 wells tested between September 2002 and April 2007, 88 percent (%) of the wells “passed” (did not exceed) all of the required primary standards for drinking water. Of the 12 % (6,369) wells that exceeded a primary drinking water standards (“failed”), the most common exceedances were for gross alpha particle activity2 (2,209 wells), arsenic (1,445 wells), nitrates (1,399 wells), fecal coliform or E. coli (1,136 wells), volatile organic compounds (VOCs) (702 wells), and mercury4 (215 wells). A summary of the primary contaminant test results is presented in Figure E1.

There are significant flaws in the DEP private well testing program that cry out for legislative and regulatory reforms. Yet while the DEP Report discloses these problems, DEP does not recommend how to fix them.
1) There is no requirement to fix pollution problems discovered:
“The Act and subsequent regulations do not require water treatment
if any test parameter standard level is exceeded. However, the NJDEP does provide information regarding various treatment alternatives and potential funding sources (see http://www.nj.gov/dep/pwta). The Act is considered a “notice” of potable water quality for interested parties involved in the real estate transaction.”

2) Neighbors of polluted wells are not required to be warned
“Once the local health authority is notified electronically by NJDEP or directly by the laboratory, the health authorities may (but are not required to) notify property owners within the vicinity of the failing well. However, because these individual tests are considered confidential, the exact location of the well test failure cannot be identified.”
3) Purely Voluntary: DEP can not enforce the Private Well Testing Act
“Since no state agency has the ability to verify that all real estate transactions (sales and leases) subject to testing under the PWTA have been reported to NJDEP, the absence of results, along with errors or mistakes in the reported data, could have a significant impact on the evaluation and interpretation of the data presented.”
4) The data are unreliable
The following identifies some key issues concerning PWTA data:
A) Sample Collection and Transport – Samples collected or transported improperly often yield contaminated or questionable test results. For example, the NJDEP currently suspects that collection of lead samples from unflushed water tanks or spigots may be the primary reason why many elevated lead results are being reported.

B) Analysis and Data Reporting – The PWTA Program testing data are submitted electronically and are automatically entered into the database without any quality control or quality assurance reviews. It is assumed that the certified laboratory properly met all required protocols and the data are accurate. The PWTA Program
relies on the reporting laboratory to catch and correct any data entry errors.

C) Collection of well location information – Without accurate well location information, the analytical results cannot be properly correlated to the well, thereby-hindering evaluations of the data. The new database that went on-line in the Spring of 2007 included additional quality control checks to improve location data.
5) Failure rate does NOT include MAJOR TOXIC LEAD PROBLEMS
“NJDEP considers the lead results to be questionable, and did not include them in the summary charts. The raw lead test results indicate that 5,523 wells (11%) out of the 51,028 tested had lead levels above the old ground water standard of 10 μg/l, and 9,368 (18%) wells had lead levels above the new ground water standard of 5 μg/l. Furthermore, some of the samples contained unrealistically high concentrations of lead with the highest being 20,200 μg/l. “
6) The “case study” reported in Byram Township (Sussex) is a disaster
Private Well Testing Act Case Study #2 – Byram Township, Sussex County
In the summer of 2004, a well at a house being sold in Byram Township, Sussex County was found to be contaminated with trichloroethylene above the Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) of 1 microgram per liter (or part per billion (ppb)). The concentration detected was 29 μg/l. The public notification provisions within the PWTA regulations suggest that the local health authority notify neighboring properties within at least 200 feet whenever a drinking water standard (e.g., MCL) is exceeded. Because of the location of the affected property, no homes were located within 200 ft of the affected property, so neither the local health authority nor the State performed any subsequent sampling.

(reposted 8/27/08 posted late in the day – may have been missed by readers. This is too important a story to fly under media radar.)

  1. JRacioppi
    August 28th, 2008 at 09:53 | #1
  2. nohesitation
    August 28th, 2008 at 10:00 | #2

    Thanks Joe, I hadn’t seen that.
    I would expect AP to do more work than mere stenography that downplays the risks and ignores the flaws in DEP program.
    This statement in AP story is BS DEP spin – I challenge AP to find it in the DEP Report or DEP regulations: Testing is not mandated anywhere:
    “The DEP said people who have wells should get them tested.”

  3. nohesitation
    August 28th, 2008 at 10:03 | #3

    I forgot to mention that had I not issued a press release and posted the Report here yesterday, that DEP had no intetnion of doing so.
    DEP quietly posted the study on the DEP website on Tuesday.
    I worked at DEP for 13 years – a Report of this magnitude warrants a press release. DEP was responding.
    AP likely was working off the Asbury Park Press story by Todd Bates.

  4. unprovincial
    August 28th, 2008 at 20:12 | #4

    I have no doubt that there are people in NJ that are unknowingly drinking contaminated water based on my experience of sending information to the bureau that initially ranks the risk and puts the case in line to be addressed (due to the fact that there are so many contaminated sites). This is the same bureau that accidentally discovered Kiddie Kollege.
    However, I wonder if the 51,000 wells tested were the ones that were considered most likely to be contaminated or if these were simply the ones that chose to have their wells sampled. If it was the former reason, then extrapolating the percentage of total impacted wells would not be correct.
    As for the contaminants: arsenic is naturally high in many places in NJ due to the mineral content of the surrounding rocks and/or soil, many metals detections can be biased high if there is suspended solids due to the lab method used (ie. the metals concentrations is in reality lower than the reported concentration), fecal coliform can be from a person’s own septic tank and is usually analyzed when a person first drills a well for drinking, and TCE and PCE are becoming ubiquitous in anyplace as populated as NJ due to dry cleaners and any machine shop. Lastly, it is really the responsibility of the well owner to make sure the well is fit to drink. I am constantly amazed how renters don’t know where their water is coming from. I’m much more concerned about the fact that Responsible Parties (polluters) aren’t made to track down the end of their contaminant plume and clean it up.

  5. nohesitation
    August 31st, 2008 at 11:20 | #5

    unprovincial -
    The 51,000 wells teted were tested due to real estate sales or rentals , not science.
    Over 350,000 other wells have NOT been tested.
    Given the large size of the database and its statewide distribution, I think it is statiustically valid representation of statewide conditions (this is a judgement, not a quantitative assessment).
    The data is not random, however.
    It doesn’t matter if the source of the pollutant is mand made or natural – it is still a risk if you drink it.
    This is not solely a well owner’s responsibility.
    This is a public DEP responsibility, given that:
    1) well contamaition is not always discrete or limited to a single well or private property. Contamination often tends to be regional. A homeowner is responsible for his roof – if it leaks, only he is harmed. If his well is contaminated, the entire community may be impacted and has an interest in knowing that.
    2) well contamination impacts public resources (ground water) held in trust by DEP for the benefit of the public;
    3) DEP is responsible for protecting water supply andpublic health.
    4) The public has a right to know.
    All the technical points you raise need to be provided to homeowners so they can get wells sampled adn appropraitely interpret the results.
    That’s why DEP also is obligated to do public education and outreach, which they failed to do.

  1. July 25th, 2010 at 22:51 | #1
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