The water flowing out of the taps of Trenton Water Works’ customers is safe to drink.
But, with repeated operational issues eroding trust in the quality of water delivered to 225,000 people in the City of Trenton and nearby suburbs, scores of local and state officials are working to ensure it stays that way.
In January, tensions between Trenton Water Works and its suburban customers reached new heights thanks to two incidents: the discovery of a potentially harmful chemical in the water and, later in the month, a 12-hour delay in notifying customers they might have to boil their water after a plant shutdown.
Many suburban officials in TWW’s service area now say the issues show the City of Trenton is not up to the job of running the utility, and have expressed frustration at the situation and the lack of options their towns have to resolve it.
Meanwhile, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has taken TWW to task for continued operational and management failures, and has even threatened legal action against the city as a last-ditch effort to fix issues that have been lingering for years.
The City of Trenton maintains it is and has been doing everything required of it.
But the DEP has presented a compelling case. Among the issues cited by DEP are deficiencies in standard operating procedures, equipment and qualified staffers at the TWW treatment plant. A September 2017 consultants’ report commissioned by the City of Trenton said TWW carries a $12 million surplus, but has only one-third of the staff needed to operate its system.
“The City’s inability or unwillingness to act with the urgency the current situation requires potentially puts at risk the health of the 225,000 people TWW serves in the City of Trenton and in Ewing, Hamilton, Lawrence and Hopewell townships,” then-DEP commissioner Bob Martin wrote in a Jan. 12 letter to Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson, obtained by the Post through a public records request.
Martin sent the letter a week after DEP staff hand-delivered a notice of violation to Sean Semple, Trenton’s assistant director of public works. The notice detailed a list of problems, including a failure to properly operate disinfectant feeds, a failure to train staff on proper procedure outside of routine operations, a lack of an emergency response plan and a failure to take daily samples to verify water has been adequately filtered.
Private conversations about TWW’s problems had been ongoing between the City of Trenton and DEP for nearly a decade, but it exploded into public outcry last month following two incidents. First, on Jan. 5, TWW revealed that two unidentified testing locations showed levels of haloacetic acid 5 that exceeded federal standards. HAA5 forms when disinfectants like chlorine react with organic matter, such as bacteria in the water. Consuming haloacetic acids over many years may increase the risk of cancer.
Then, on Jan. 15, the DEP issued a boil-water advisory for portions of TWW’s service area after water, ice and debris from a rapidly running Delaware River overwhelmed a TWW plant, causing it to malfunction at 5 a.m. TWW, however, did not alert customers of the advisory until that evening.
Other municipalities had to step in to fill the information gap. Hamilton Township issued the first alert about the advisory, to residents in its Deutzville neighborhood, at 1 p.m., eight hours after the plant shut down. Township officials said they had been tipped off by contacts within DEP.
“DEP, as soon as they get the results, makes a decision,” Hamilton health director Jeff Plunkett said. “We don’t hear until hours after the fact from Trenton. We get most of our information from internal contacts at DEP, and that puts us a little ahead of the game, to the benefit of our residents. It’s certainly not the professional way or the optimal way to do it.”
Ewing Township posted a notice on its website in the early afternoon, with township employees going door-to-door that evening to personally notify affected residents. Hopewell also posted on its website in the early afternoon of Jan. 15, with Lawrence waiting until Trenton issued its notice later that evening to send out a reverse 911 alert to residents that Lawrence Township was not affected.
Perhaps complicating matters, the advisory was issued on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, when most government employees were not working. In fact, the person at TWW in charge of notifying municipal officials of problems was on vacation when the boil-water advisory was issued, with city officials unaware the TWW point person was away, Plunkett said.
Even when they had learned of the advisory, the municipal governments within TWW’s service area could only report what TWW and DEP had told them, directing residents’ questions to TWW. But confusion abounded there, too. When contacted by the Post at 2 p.m. on Jan. 15, a Trenton Water Works employee could not say which parts of the TWW service area were affected by the notice.
As it turned out, the boil-water advisory only affected small sections in Ewing, Hamilton and downtown Trenton, and was lifted the next day, Jan. 16. The DEP, TWW and officials in all the municipalities assured residents of the water’s safety.
But the Jan. 15 incident proved illustrative. For years, the chief complaint of the mayors in TWW’s service area had been lack of communication and clarity from TWW. Hamilton Mayor Kelly Yaede has been campaigning publicly for more state oversight of TWW since 2013, when she sent Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno a letter complaining, in part, about TWW’s poor communication. Those calls resumed this past summer, when TWW revealed to its customers, in a letter, that lead levels in some parts of its service area had exceeded federal standards. The letter had been issued with no warning to customers or municipal officials.
The lead incident spurred enough complaints that Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson invited officials from Ewing, Hamilton, Hopewell Township and Lawrence, as well as county executive Brian Hughes and a city-hired contractor to hash out their differences in a meeting at Trenton City Hall on Dec. 28. The officials discussed the issues TWW had faced in 2017, along with the city’s plans to staff the treatment plant, to follow DEP recommendations and to hire a water management firm to help operate Trenton Water Works.
The information, for the most part, placated the suburban mayors, though they bristled at Jackson’s insistence the city use the bid process to acquire outside help.
“If it’s a state of emergency, you can bypass a lot of that stuff,” Ewing Mayor Bert Steinmann said in an interview Jan. 19. “It kind of satisfied people, at least the mayors, that it was a step in the right direction. But we weren’t happy with the time frame.”
A week after that meeting, TWW announced the HAA5 violations, followed 10 days later by the delayed boil-water advisory. It convinced the mayors they needed to take action. Steinmann and Lawrence Mayor Christopher Bobbitt met in mid-January, and came up with an idea they feel could solve at least the communication problem: a regional water authority.
‘Water this, water that,’ City of Trenton spokesman Michael Walker, in response to an email query about Trenton Water Works.
Ewing and Lawrence already work together with a regional sewage authority, and Steinmann said he and Bobbitt have been so pleased with how it runs they will pitch the idea of a similar board for water to the other affected mayors this month. In their vision, Trenton would retain ownership and control of Trenton Water Works, but every municipality in the service area would be represented on a board that shares information and makes suggestions about TWW. Towns served by TWW have no input or control over any decision made at TWW currently.
“We can’t simply change a water provider like a telecommunications provider,” Yaede said. “We’re unable to have a say in the sale of the utility. If suburban residents wanted to contest rate hikes, they do not have the added scrutiny and review of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities. Even if a governing body desires to change, we don’t have the ability to change.”
While officials in the suburban towns had reached their limit last month, within Trenton city government, there’s growing impatience with the topic’s staying power.
“Water this, water that,” City of Trenton spokesman Michael Walker said in response to an email query about Trenton Water Works from the Post.
Jackson, Trenton’s mayor, took an even more defiant stance. In a statement issued Jan. 18, Jackson called news reports and statements by politicians as “highly charged rhetoric and misinformation.”
The statement suggested the recent outcries are part of a campaign to discredit Trenton Water Works and wrest control of the utility from the city. Jackson said the city has looked for an outside water management company to help run the plant, and added that Trenton has been doing what’s required by regulation, with the DEP constantly involved to ensure adherence.
“TWW has operated according to state and federal standards, supplying water to its customers that either meets or exceeds federal standards,” Jackson said in the statement. “There have been some temporary operational issues, but the water quality and the public’s health was never in danger.”
But Martin’s Jan. 12 letter to Trenton said the city had agreed to award an emergency management contract by Nov. 30, 2017, and nearly two months after missing that deadline, its draft contract remains “unacceptably incomplete and does not meet even the minimum requirements to keep TWW operational.”
And even though Jackson cited TWW’s cooperation with the DEP, the state agency has had serious concerns about Trenton Water Works and the city’s ability to act in good faith.
“The Department of Environmental Protection has been exceedingly patient with the City,” Martin wrote Jan. 12. “We have worked very hard to assist you in meeting your responsibility to TWW’s customers. We have given you every opportunity to comply with our appropriate requests for corrective action.”
State records show just how deep TWW’s struggles have been recently. The DEP issued 13 violations against TWW between January 2017 and January 2018, its worst stretch on record. By comparison, the utility had 12 total violations during the five-year period of 2012-2016.
The content of the violations also raised concern. Among the 13 were five violations of the federal lead/copper rule, one violation for high lead levels and one, last month, for failing to hit the state’s standard for proper disinfecting “due to inadequate chlorination.”
Another four violations—three for lack of turbidity monitoring and one for failing to properly treat the water—stem from an incident in the fall where an instrument that measures how well the water has been filtered and cleaned malfunctioned for months, meaning TWW cannot say whether or not the water met federal clean water standards during that time frame.
The DEP placed blame for this, in part, on the lack of qualified workers in TWW’s treatment plant, which has been operating with just 68 positions filled.
The city has taken steps to rectify the staffing issue. Trenton city council has waived residency requirements for Trenton Water Works employees, and has hired a consultant to fill positions at TWW. Yet, as of Sept. 25, the utility did not have the majority of its operator positions, its top five laboratory jobs or 11 of its 14 water repairer slots filled.
“TWW’s numerous vacancies leave TWW with inadequate leadership and technical expertise, which is reflected in its inability to fulfill its purpose and legal obligation to provide a reliable and safe water supply for its consumers and critical users,” Martin wrote.
The letter also took TWW to task because it “has failed to timely comply or make any meaningful progress toward compliance” on an order to cover Trenton’s open-air reservoir on Pennington Road. The DEP issued the order on March 31, 2009, nine years ago, urging Trenton to comply with federal regulations. The DEP has granted the city several extensions on the order, the latest in January 2014. Yet the reservoir remains uncovered.
Martin finished his letter by saying the DEP considered filing a Superior Court complaint against TWW, but decided to leave that decision to the administration of Gov. Phil Murphy, who took office Jan. 16. Martin promised to fully brief Catherine McCabe, Murphy’s appointee to the DEP commissioner’s job, on the situation.
McCabe started at DEP on Jan. 22, and “is aware of the Trenton Water Works situation,” DEP spokesperson Caryn Shinske said.
Elsewhere at the state level, officials have jumped in to help TWW customers. State Sen. Shirley Turner, whose district includes the bulk of TWW’s service area, introduced two bills Jan. 22 seeking to improve the scope and speed of the notification process when a public water system learns its water is unsafe for drinking.
State Sen. Linda Greenstein and Assemblymen Daniel Benson and Wayne DeAngelo, who represent Hamilton, sent a letter to McCabe and Board of Public Utilities President Joseph Fiordaliso requesting a meeting regarding Trenton Water Works and to seek solutions to the “ongoing, growing problems to ensure the health and safety of our constituents.”
Greenstein last year led a joint Drinking Water Task Force unrelated to TWW, and has moved Trenton’s water issues to the top of her 2018 priorities.
“However it’s being done, it just isn’t working,” Greenstein said in an interview Jan. 19. “It needs to be done another way.”