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Sewer Plants Put Drinking Water At Risk – Yet Local Authorities Pressure DEP To Gut Rules

[Update: 8/20/10 Jim O’neill writes a good story in today’s Bergen Record:  Sewer authorities want treatment rules eased ]

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

In a remarkably irresponsible move that puts public health directly as risk, local sewer authorities are pressuring DEP to gut current water quality standards set to protect drinking water from sewage discharges (see below for summary and links to the documents).

42 N.J.R. 1634(a)
Surface Water Quality Standards, N.J.A.C. 7:9B
Notice of Receipt of Petition for Rulemaking
Point of Application Policy for Nitrate and Total Dissolved Solids

Petitioner: Association of Environmental Authorities

Take notice that on June 18, 2010, the Department of Environmental Protection (Department) received a petition for rulemaking from Edward A. Kondracki, Esq., on behalf of the Association of Environmental Authorities (petitioner). The petitioner requests that the Department amend the Surface Water Quality Standards (SWQS), N.J.A.C. 7:9B, to establish an alternate point of application policy at N.J.A.C. 7:9B-1.5(i) that would allow the human health criteria for nitrate and total dissolved solids (TDS) to be applied at the point of intake for a potable water use, rather than at the point of discharge or the edge of any applicable regulatory mixing zone.

Sewer authorities are seeking to have their pollution measured not at the end of the pipe where it discharges to the river, but after lots of dilution, many miles downstream, where it is taken in for water supply.

They want to shift the burden for clean water from themselves to drinking water purveyors, the opposite of current “source water protection” and “polluter pays” policies. That may sound wonky and complex, but it’s not really. Think of it as asking the State Police to have a radar gun only at Exit 12 on the Turnpike, thus allowing you to go 100+ mph from Delaware Memorial or George Washington Bridge until that point.

The move comes at a time when US EPA, NJ DEP, and the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) are engaged in a concerted effort to ramp up efforts to ratchet down on sewage treatment plant discharges in order to protect water quality.

Since 1985 – for over 25 years – DEP has fought a losing battle to force sewer plants in the Passaic Basin to cleanup their act and reduce pollution discharge in order to protect the water supply of north jersey.

Those stalled efforts were restarted in 2002, when DEP began to enforce water quality standards in facility permits using a Clean Water Act tool known as “water quality based effluent limits“.

In the Passaic, where a prior Whitman Administration settlement agreement provided a legal loophole from stricter WQBELs, DEP is seeking to ratchet down on the sewage plants under a broader watershed wide “Total Maximum Daily Load” (TMDL). The objective of the TMDL is to reduce pollution levels required to protect the water supply intakes and the Wanaque reservoir, where polluted river water is pumped.

Not many people understand that a series of 5 major water supply intakes on the Passaic and Pompton rivers are used directly for drinking water, or to refill the Wanaque, Canoe Brook, and Point View reservoirs (see Table 1, page 12). [Update: perhaps the public would know all about this if DEP complied with the law and updated the Water Supply Master Plan, which was last updated 14 years ago and is 9 years overdue the legal 5 year update due in 2001.]

These water supply sources are located directly down river from scores of sewage treatment plants and industrial pollution discharges (see Table 2 page 13 for a list, and Figure  2, page 9 for a map of the locations).

Many unregulated toxic chemicals are discharged to the river and are not treated before entering the water supply system. Nor can water supply purveyors monitor or remove all those chemicals. New science is finding these chemicals increasingly in water supplies and observing adverse human health and ecological effects at extremely low levels.

As Sierra Club’s Jeff Tittel has graphically put it – “In NJ, you can drink a beer on Friday night and have it in your coffee on Saturday morning”.

To expand the scope to ecological impacts and and broaden these efforts statewide, last April (2009), DEP adopted a “Nutrient Criteria Enhancement Plan” (NCEP) in order to comply with federal Clean Water Act.

Nutrients are chemicals phosphorus and nitrogen, which stimulate algae and plant growth that kills aquatic life via  a process known as eutrophication. This nitrogen loading from sewage treatment plants contributes to “dead zones” in NJ bays (NY/NJ harbor, Raritan, Delaware Bays) and near shore ocean.

According to the DEP NCEP:

3. Drinking Water Supply

All freshwaters in New Jersey are designated as potential drinking water supplies. … Adverse impacts to potable water supplies resulting from high nutrient concentrations include increased treatment costs and taste and odor complaints. High levels of nutrients may increase the amount of algae and turbidity in the water supply, to which purveyors respond by adding increased amounts of various chemicals, including coagulants, oxidants, and disinfectants such as chlorine, before the water can be used for drinking purposes. Increased levels of chlorine added to potable water results in the formation of higher levels of disinfection by-products (e.g., bromodichloromethane, bromoform, chloroform, dichloroacetic acid, and bromate) that have been shown to increase the risk of cancer (USEPA, 2007). Thus, nutrient over-enrichment can cause impairment of waters used by water purveyors for drinking water supplies. It should be noted that New Jersey’s existing surface water quality criterion for nitrate is designed to protect human-health, not aquatic life, so it is not related to eutrophication. The nitrate criterion is intended to protect infants from a potentially fatal blood disorder called methemoglobinemia or “blue baby syndrome”.

Based on new science, US EPA just announced plans in the Federal Register (@ page 15,552) to reconsider the health effects and standards for nitrates:

This latter report concluded that, under conditions that result in endogenous nitrosation, ingested nitrate or nitrite is probably carcinogenic to humans. In light of this information, EPA considers nitrate as a potential candidate for a new health effects assessment.”

In order to preempt these EPA, DEP, and DRBC efforts to cleanup NJ’s waters and protect public health, the local sewer authorities have gone on offense.

The scary thing is that the Christie/Martin DEP just may grant approval, under their “regulatory relief” policy.

Led by ANJEC, about 20 NJ groups are oppsing this move (see: SWQS petition.doc)

Press Release

For Immediate Release:  Monday, August 9, 2010
Contact:  Bill Wolfe (609) 397-4861; Kate Hornyan (202) 265-7337

Bid to Hike Sewage Content of New Jersey Rivers

Sewer Plants Ask Christie Administration to Relax Water Supply Protections

Trenton – Wastewater treatment companies have asked the Christie administration to allow more pollutants to be discharged into New Jersey rivers and streams. The Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and a coalition of 17 other groups are opposing the proposed change in state Surface Water Quality Standards.

NJ’s rivers are a major water supply source. Current water quality standards are set to protect those drinking water supplies and limit the amount of dilution allowable in setting permit limits. However, current lax individual facility permit limits have caused ambient river water quality levels of nitrate to approach the 10 mg/L drinking water standard. This is a critical problem because there is not treatment to remove nitrates from the river source water. High pollution levels also limit the ability to refill depleted reservoirs with pumped river water, exacerbating drougth. Nitrates are known to cause “blue baby syndome”, which can be fatal. The cumulative discharge of nitrates also have significant downstream ecological effects on bays, estuaries and the ocean, contributing to excessive eutrophication and oxygen free “dead zones”.

“The last thing New Jersey rivers need is more sewage,” said Abbie Fair of the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions, which argues that the plan would violate both the federal Clean Water Act and the state Water Pollution Control Act. “It is unconscionable that the wastewater authorities want to turn our waterways into pollution treatment streams.”

By extending the “mixing zone” where pollutants exceed potable limits from the wastewater facility discharge pipe to drinking water intake points, the proposal would make longer stretches of receiving rivers and streams unsuitable for swimming, fishing or wildlife survival. Moreover, with shrinking water supplies, there may not be enough freshwater to dilute the treated sewage.

“Few people realize that sewer plants and industries discharge partially treated wastewater short distances upstream from water supply intakes. In summer when rainfall is low, 100% of the flow of the Passaic River is treated sewage water – there is no clean water left to dilute the outflow,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe. “My concern is that this proposal may have already been secretly green-lighted by the Christie administration under the guise of regulatory relief.”

Besides nitrates and dissolved solids, the proposal will also increase the amount of pesticides and other chemicals as well as un-metabolized pharmaceuticals, none of which are screened out of treated wastewater.

Under the state Administrative Procedures Act, the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has 60 days from its July 19 publication in the New Jersey Register to grant, deny or seek an additional 30-day extension to render a decision on this wastewater petition.

Even if approved by DEP, the relaxed standards would be subject to review by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for compliance with federal clean water standards.  In addition, EPA has announced that it is considering nitrate as a potential candidate for a new health effects assessment due to concerns that ingested nitrate or nitrite can be carcinogenic to humans.  Any reassessment would likely result in tighter nitrate limits that would cost water treatment plants far more than any savings they could hope to achieve by this proposal.


Read the coalition letter

Look at the pre-existing weakness of state water quality standards

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