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Drinking Water Risks Rise – While DEP Ignores Science

[Update: At the May 7 Drinking Water Quality Institute meeting, DEP staff presented a paper: “Investigations Related to a “Treatment-Based” Regulatory Approach to Address Unregulated Contaminants in Drinking Water” – we will be writing more on these important issues soon.]

Red Flag Alert: In an unprecedented move, earlier this year the Chairman of the NJ Drinking Water Quality Institute – a Rutgers Dean – quietly resigned in frustration over DEP’s failure to adopt drinking water standards for toxic chemicals recommended by Institute scientists.

In March 2009, the DWQI recommended that DEP strengthen existing standards – DEP has ignored those recommendations. See below from PEER.

The resignation and DEP inaction come at a time when scientists are finding that human health and ecological risks from a host of unregulated chemicals increasingly found in rivers and streams are significantly increasing. (see outstanding NY Times series “Toxic Waters“)

Almost 2 years ago, the NJ Legislature held hearings on emerging unregulated toxic chemicals in our water supply, including pharmaceuticals and pesticides (see Lawmakers call for more study of pharmaceuticals in drinking water and “Drugs in Drinking Water

In 2002, scientists from the US Geological Survey issued an alarming study that found widespread pollution: Pharmaceuticals, Hormones, and Other Organic Contaminants in U.S. Streams

A recent 2010 USGS study is even more disturbing, showing human health as well as ecological risks – NJ has many “effluent impacted” streams and rivers. In fact, NJ water supplies rely on rivers that receive enormous discharges of effluent from sewage treatment plants and industries directly upstream of water supply intakes: Antidepressant Pharmaceuticals in Two U.S. Effluent -Impacted Streams: Occurrence and Fate in Water and Sediment and Selective Uptake in Fish Neural Tissue

Look for DEP Commissioner Bob Martin to downplay these risks and attempt to propose a sham voluntary, PR oriented, industry backed “solution”: “Operation Medicine Cabinet” – (or NJ’s “War on Drugs” enforcement oriented version) – a move designed to shield NJ home based pharmaceutical industry and sewage treatment plants from real regulation.

News Releases

For Immediate Release: May 5, 2010
Contact: Bill Wolfe (609) 397-4861; Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337

TIGHTER NEW JERSEY DRINKING WATER STANDARDS IN OBLIVION — Drinking Water Institute Chair Resigns in Frustration; Successor to be Announced

Trenton — A five-year effort to update limits on more than 30 contaminants commonly found in New Jersey’s drinking water appears to be doomed by the anti-regulatory stance of the Christie administration, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). As a result, New Jersey residents will continue to be exposed to chemicals ranging from benzene to formaldehyde in amounts that its expert Drinking Water Quality Institute (DWQI) has found unsafe.

Established in 1985 under the state’s Safe Drinking Water Quality Act, the 15-member DWQI determines the scientific basis of maximum contamination levels for chemicals in drinking water and then makes recommendations to the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to promulgate regulations enforcing drinking water standards. In March 2009, DWQI finished its review of 31 chemicals and issued a report recommending new or tighter standards for 13 chemicals, including:

  • New standards for five currently unregulated chemicals, including formaldehyde and methyl ethyl ketone;
  • Tighter standards for eight chemicals, including benzene and vinyl chloride; and
  • Looser standards for three chemicals.

One of the most worrisome findings of the DWQI was the need to enact new very strict limits on highly toxic contaminants, such as 1,2,3- trichloropropane, about which the DWQI stated:

“1,2,3-TCP is DNA-reactive, clearly genotoxic and mutagenic, caused tumors in a number of tissues in both the rat and the mouse, and metastatic forestomach tumors were found in variety of locations.”

In February 2010, the longtime Chair of the DWQI, Dr. Mark Robson of Rutgers University, resigned when it became clear that the DEP under outgoing Gov. Corzine would not act on the DWQI’s March 2009 recommendations. His successor will presumably be announced at the upcoming DWQI meeting this Friday, May 7. That meeting, the first under Christie, may also reveal the future of the DWQI itself.

The Christie administration just finished a comprehensive regulatory review, called the “Red Tape Review” which did not mention anything about the need to tighten contaminant standards for drinking water, as recommended in the DWQI March 2009 Report to DEP. In fact, the Christie review targeted a number of current water pollution and other environmental rules for repeal or relaxation. In addition, Gov. Christie would impose a new “cost-benefit analysis” for all future regulations that may require significant adverse health effects to large populations in order to justify any new rules deemed expensive.

“Clean drinking water will be a major challenge for the Christie administration which wants to put business promotion on a par with public health,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, a former DEP analyst, pointing to DEP’s new economic development emphasis. “Political appointees now say they want to depend on ‘sound science’ but here the science is already in and it is just flat being ignored.”

As a prime example of the Christie administration’s difficulties with drinking water protection, PEER points to perchlorate, a component of rocket fuel found in many state waters. A proposed tight new limit, which came from an earlier DWQI study, was allowed to die this March. Facing public and legislative criticism, last week DEP Commissioner Bob Martin (who had earlier testified that the science behind the perchlorate proposal was “shoddy” and there was “no data” supporting adverse health impacts) reversed himself after PEER revealed that, contrary to Martin’s public assertion that U.S. EPA was poised to act imminently on the chemical, that federal regulation is still years away. On April 29, 2010, his spokesman said “The commissioner does plan to institute a perchlorate regulation as quickly as possible.” It is not clear, however, when these new limits will be in place or how they will be set.

“The anti-regulatory rhetoric of the Christie administration will continue to trip them up, just as it did with perchlorate,” Wolfe added. “There is no way around the fact that protecting our drinking water from growing chemical contamination necessitates government action.”


Read the DWQI March 2009 report recommending new or tighter limits on an array of chemicals

Find out more about DWQI and see the agenda for its May 7 meeting

Revisit the Christie “Red Tape Review”

See the abandoned perchlorate standard that the DEP commissioner has promised to revisit

New Jersey PEER is a state chapter of a national alliance of state and federal agency resource professionals working to ensure environmental ethics and government accountability

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