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DEP Does the Right Thing – Really!

Commissioner Martin reverses direction: rejects cost arguments and follows science

Reversing the direction of several prior decisions to forego drinking water protections based on: 1) cost ; 2) attacks on DEP science;  and 3) promotion of economic development, DEP Commissioner Bob Martin listened to DEP professionals and environmental groups. Yesterday Martin announced that he denied a petition by local sewer authorities to relax current surface water quality standards designed to protect drinking water supplies. (see also: “Drinking Water Risks Rise – While DEP Ignores Science“)

We broke this story On Aug. 9 with “Sewer Plants Put Drinking Water At Risk – Yet Local Authorities Pressure DEP To Gut Rules“. The sub-headline to that post was this:

DEP: “The nitrate criterion is intended to protect infants from a potentially fatal blood disorder called methemoglobinemia or “blue baby syndrome.”

In these Red Tape regulatory rollback days, victory is just holding the line on current protections. So we’ll declare victory, and thank Abbie Fair at ANJEC and Susan Kraham from Columbia Law School  for an excellent job in catching and responding to this petition.

Jim O’Neill of the Bergen Record wrote a good story about that today (see: DEP denies request to ease water treatment rules). Here’s the money quote from that story, literally echoing our sub-headline:

[DEP Commisioner Martin] noted that infants who drink water containing nitrate above the maximum level allowed under federal and state drinking water rules — 10 milligrams per liter — “could be come seriously ill and, if untreated, may die.” [My Note To Bob: new science suggests adverse health effects, including cancer, far below the current 10 mg/L standard, see this  EPA Federal Register notice discussed below.] 

But from the outset, the sewer authority petition was a non-starter.

Aside from putting drinking water at risk from additional pollution, it blatantly violated both state and federal Clean Water Acts. It would have been blocked by US EPA even if DEP did approve it.

Which leads to the question: what possibly could have motivated the sewer authorities to even file it?

Did someone at a political level in the Christie Administration give a green light to this idea?

Or did AEA try to jump on the Red Tape Rollback Wagon and get a piece of the Christie Executive Order #2 cost/benefit regulatory relief?

I would love to know the inside story on that. Would any AEA whistelblowers like to annonymously step forward?

Politics aside, the issues of nitrates and unregulated chemicals – such as pharmaceuticals - entering our water supply are very serious public health and ecological concerns.

Ironically, the AEA petition came just as the drought emerged. That was amazing timing, because the media and people think of drought only in terms of water quantity. But, the AEA petition has shown a bright light on the water quality aspects of drought, because river water has become too polluted to use to refill reservoirs.

Perhaps the realization will sink in the NJ drinking water systems take partially treated wastewater from sewage treatment plants and industrial discharges to the river and use that same water for drinking water supply.

So, now that the press, the public, and DEP Commissioner Martin have become aware of the problem, will there be renewed efforts to enforce and strengthen current surface water quality standards, develop new drinking water standards or treatment requirements for scores of unregulated chemicals that poison water supplies and pollute ecosystems, and ratchet down on pollution discharges?

If so, we have a long list of serious problems and needed reforms to strengthen protections, enforce existing standards, and close loopholes. (see this for some)

Will Commissioner Martin seize this moment to move forward on a clean water agenda, instead of continuing the current rollback policy?

We’ll keep you posted.

[Update: I didn’t want to fail to note this little bit of revisionism by the polluters.

The AEA petition was not based on the anticipated ratchet down on the current 10 mg/L nitrate standard. New scientific  evidence suggests that the current standard is not protective of public health or ecological concerns. AEA has been resisting that science for years and dragging their feet in upgrading pollution controls.

In fact, just the opposite: The AEA move was designed to preempt that ratchet down and dodge new pollution control treatment requirements. It was not designed to open any dialog about them.

In fact, I recently wrote about both new science on human health risks and EPA drinking water MCL’s and ecological concerns. I discussed these issues at length with reporters. So I found this ending quote from the Bergen Record story extremely ironic:

Given recent studies cited by the federal Environmental Protection Agency that indicate nitrate is probably carcinogenic to humans, sewerage authorities are expecting nitrate cleanup standards to become tighter down the road and were hoping to start a dialogue with the DEP about easing restrictions in cases where the agency discharges into a stream not used for drinking water, Gulbinsky said.

If Gulbinsky said that, she is lying - the AEA petition was specifically targeted at streams and rivers that are currently used for water supply. It targeted the water supply intakes as an alternative point of compliance!

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