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Passaic River Running like An Open Sewer (Again)

High Nutrient Loads from Sewage Plants Threaten Water Supply Intakes

Bergen Record Blames The Weather

You can file this one right up there with Ronald Reagan’s “trees cause air pollution” and his Secretary of the Interior James Watt’s recommendation to wear a hat and sunscreen to protect against depletion of the ozone layer.

Someone famous once said (was it IF Stone? Or George Orwell?) that journalism was writing the story that the powers that be don’t want told, all the rest was public relations and propaganda.

The Story They Don’t Want Told

North Jersey has a serious plumbing problem in the Passaic River basin, particularly during the dry summer months.

During dry summer months, the flow of the Passaic River can reach 100% treated wastewater.(DEP buries all that under the phrase “critical conditions”)

At times, pollution levels get so high that the river can no longer be used for water supply.

Think of the Wanaque Reservoir as a bathtub. It is filled in two ways: 1) natural rainfall and 2) pumping of millions of gallons of water from the Passaic River.

There are 70 or so sewage treatment plants that discharge wastewater upstream of the intake that pumps river water to the Wanaque Reservoir and above the Passaic Valley Water Supply Commission’s (PVWSC) intake.

Those sewage treatment plants do not remove all chemicals, contributing to the fact that DEP has found over 500 chemicals in the river, a water supply source.

Similarly, drinking water treatment does not remove all chemicals in the source river water. So some of those chemicals pass right through to your tap.

Additionally, cancer causing chemicals called “disinfection byproducts” are created by treating the river water to remove some of the algae that grows explosively due to high pollution levels in the river.

That’s right – millions of gallons a day of wastewater are the source of water supply for millions of residents of north jersey.

Under drought conditions: 1) the reservoir is not replenished naturally; 2) the river can become too polluted for pumping to the fill the reservoir; and 3) the river can become so polluted that it forces a shutdown of the intakes.

Heavy sewage treatment plant pollutant loads and drought cause a triple threat – seriously jeopardizing both the quality and quantity of the water supply for north jersey.

Obviously, the PVWSC would rather not discuss that in public.

Obviously, the sewage treatment plant operators and DEP would not like to discuss the fact that lax pollution discharge limits threaten the drinking water of millions of north Jersey residents.

The Propaganda They Report

After more than 30 years of the same problem occurring on the Passaic River during virtually every summer, and news reports of DEP weakening water quality standards for nutrients, you would think the news reporters would get it.

You would be wrong.

Today, the Bergen Record reports on the deplorable water quality of the Passaic River – above drinking water supply intakes – and blames lack of rain! See:

Summer heat, combined with two months of below average rainfall, has left the Passaic River and many North Jersey waterways covered with algae and looking like pea soup.

Algae, which feeds off nutrients in treated waste water and runoff that is deposited in rivers, streams, and ponds, has turned much of the shimmering Passaic a murky green. While just about everything else has been drying up, the aquatic life that is frequently disrespected as “pond scum” has been growing by leaps and bounds.

Runoff? How can there be a non-point pollution runoff problem with so little rain?

Deposited? Like a bank deposit? Does the pollution “deposited” earn interest?

Nutrients? They’re good for you, right? Like what the doctor says I need to eat more of?

Summer heat and low rainfall? Of course, we can’t control the weather so the problems in the river are beyond our control, right?

The Passaic Valley Water Commission goes even further, and blames the sun:

“This time of year, with a lot of sun hitting warm water, you will see algae come up,” said Joseph A. Bella, the executive director of the Passaic Valley Water Commission. “Heavy rain will flush it.”

Hello! On high ozone air pollution days, we don’t blame the sunlight and temperatures!

I sent the reporter a note about how wrong he got the story – I forgot to remind him of several reports in the Bergen Record about how DEP lax regulation of the sewage plants threatens the water supply for the region:

Rich – the algae is a result of the fact that the river is flowing 90% or more nutrient rich wastewater discharge, NOT the lack of rainfall.
The algae is NOT benign – it creates drinking water cancer risks from what are called disinfection byproducts, which form from the chlorine used to treat the organic matter in the river water.
It also depletes oxygen in the river which kills fish and other life.
The high percentage of the river flow that is wastewater also contains high levels of nitrates.
Nitrates can cause “blue baby syndrome” – i.e. kill infants.
Nitrates can not be removed by treatment – the drinking water standard is 10 ppm (mg/L)
You should ask Passaic Water Supply folks – and DEP – what the nitrate levels are.
DEP might have to order shutdown of the river intakes if levels approach 10 ppm

Here is the reporter’s lame reply:

Rainfall would dilute the nutrients, correct? So it is the lack of rainfall that makes the water nutrient rich from which the algae feeds, correct?
It’s the byproducts from disinfection that creates the cancer risk, not the algae itself, correct?
To which I responded:

False, False, & False,

1. The Clean Water Act does not set pollution discharge permits based on rainfall and dilution. The 70 or so sewage plants upstream of Passaic intake need tighter permits. They are called “water quality based effluent limits”.

2. It is NOT the lack of rainfall – the nutrients that feed the algae growth are there regardless of the flow of the river. The concentration increases when the river flows low during drought periods.

You got spun by the Passaic water district, who doesn’t want their consumers to know that they are drinking recycled waster eater.

3. It the excessive algae wasn’t there, there would be no need for massive use  of chlorine disinfection

Google “source water protection” – the premise is that drinking water supplies should be protected and that the onus is on the polluters (sewage plants) to use advanced treatment, not the water supply utilities.

This is a long running 30 year battle in the Passaic.

DEP is not adequately protecting those Passaic River intakes.

And the polluted river water is so polluted that DEP does not allow it to be pumped to the Wanaque Reservoi8r during the summer.

You can file this one right up there with Ronald Reagan’s “trees cause air pollution” and his Secretary of the Interior James Watt’s recommendation to wear a hat and sunscreen to protect against depletion of the ozone layer.


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