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Warning: This Map Could Make You Sick

Sewer & Industrial Wastewater Discharges Upstream of Drinking Water Intakes

Shit literally happens when the power goes out

wastewater treatment plants above water supply intakes (Source: NJDEP TMDL)

You won’t hear much talk about this map and most north jersey residents probably are not aware that their drinking water is taken from rivers that receive millions of gallons of treated sewage and industrial wastewater.

Wastewater treatment does not remove all chemical contaminants, which flow down river and are taken in by the drinking water intakes.

The drinking water treatment process does not remove 100% of all chemicals either, so those chemicals are present in your tap water.

For example, the Passaic Valley Water Commission’s (PVWC) Little Falls Water Treatment Plant (LFWTP) treats surface water diverted from the Passaic and Pompton rivers.  At the confluence of the Pompton and Passaic Rivers, the Wanaque South intake diverts water into the Wanaque Reservoir.

The LFWTP intake has been deemed “highly susceptible” to pollution, primarily due to the fact that there are over 70 upriver sewage and industrial treatment plants discharging wastewater to the Passaic and Pompton rivers (and hundreds of toxic waste sites and old landfills leaching chemical poisons into the river) (see above map).

DEP does not have a comprehensive grasp of this set of issues (see: FILTER THE CHEMICAL SOUP IN NEW JERSEY’S DRINKING WATER).

But DEP does have a patchwork of permit requirements designed to prevent and reduce chemicals discharged to drinking water supplies (but not eliminate them), such as industrial pre-treatment and wastewater treatment.

(see this recent GAO Report about the effectiveness of those Clean Water Act programs – see also the recent NY Times investigative series, “Toxic Waters”, especially That Tap Water Is Legal but May Be Unhealthy

Federal and State Safe Drinking Water Regulations require routine monitoring for many chemicals, including VOCs at community water systems (but not all). As the NY Times wrote:

Only 91 contaminants are regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act, yet more than 60,000 chemicals are used within the United States, according to Environmental Protection Agency estimates. Government and independent scientists have scrutinized thousands of those chemicals in recent decades, and identified hundreds associated with a risk of cancer and other diseases at small concentrations in drinking water, according to an analysis of government records by The New York Times.

But not one chemical has been added to the list of those regulated by the Safe Drinking Water Act since 2000.

And the drinking water systems treat the raw water they take from the river, but again, the monitoring is not comprehensive, hundreds of chemicals known to be present are unregulated, and the treatment is not 100% effective in terms of removing all contaminants (especially when the power goes out).

So, quite a bit slips through the cracks under the best of circumstances.

But when the power goes out, all bets are off.

To address some of these threats to water supplies, DEP recently restricted sewage treatment plants who discharge to the Passaic and Pompton rivers above drinking water intakes under a Clean Water Act “Total Maximum Daily Load” (TMDL).

The DEP phosphorus TMDL looks at specific individual pollution sources (see above map) and imposes regulatory mandates. The TMDL states:

Algal blooms in raw drinking water sources can cause taste and odor problems and treatment inefficiencies, having a negative impact on conventional treatment at a drinking water system. When algae are present in large amounts purveyors must increase the use of disinfectants and oxidants to treat the algae resulting in an increase in disinfection byproducts such as trihalomethanes, some of which are listed by EPA as likely carcinogens. 

The Christie DEP opposes the TMDL program as just more “job killing” “red tape” “unfunded state mandates”. Christie prefers “regulatory relief” in the form of voluntary “common sense” local “partnership” efforts. [He also kills inconvenient independent science and technical bodies, like the Drinking Water Quality Institute.]

Under federal law, the DEP has studied these risks to drinking water, but instead of detailed work (backed by regulatory mandates on individual pollution sources and discrete chemicals like the phosphorus TMDL), including detailed sampling of the individual industrial and sewage treatment plant effluent for all chemicals known to be present, the ambient concentrations in the river water, and the finished drinking water (for all chemicals known to be discharged to the river).

Instead, to implement “Source water protection” and gage “susceptibility”, DEP looked at average densities of pollution sources per square mile, not individual sources and individual chemicals, e.g. “the density of known contaminant sites, solid waste landfills, NJPDES surface- and storm-water permits, and compost facilities”, see:

SUSCEPTIBILITY OF SOURCE WATER TO COMMUNITY AND NONCOMMUNITY SURFACE-WATER SUPPLIES AND RELATED WELLS IN NEW JERSEY TO CONTAMINATION BY VOLATILE ORGANIC COMPOUNDS 

The 1996 Amendments to the Federal Safe Drinking Water Act require all states to establish a Source Water Assessment Program (SWAP). New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) elected to evaluate the susceptibility of public water systems to contamination by inorganic constituents, nutrients, volatile organic and synthetic organic compounds, pesticides, disinfection byproduct precursors, pathogens, and radionuclides. Susceptibility to contamination in surface water is a function of many factors, including contaminant presence or use in or near the water source, natural occurrence in geologic material, changes in ambient conditions related to human activities, and location of the source within the flow system. The New Jersey SWAP includes four steps: (1) delineate the source water assessment area of each ground- and surface-water source used for public drinking water; (2) inventory the potential contaminant sources within the source water assessment area; (3) determine the public water system’s susceptibility to contaminants; and (4) incorporate public participation and education (www.state.nj.us/dep/swap).

So, there you have it – under the best of circumstances, the best of cases, there are serious risks to our drinking water that remain unaddressed by state and federal regulators.

No wonder mum’s the word on the huge problems  and public health risks when the power goes out.

(and the Passaic is not alone – take a look at this statewide map of intakes:

(source NJDEP - NJGS)

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