When Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora took office in July 2018, he assumed with it the burden of fixing Trenton Water Works at the utility’s lowest point. To solve the problem, he turned to Shing-Fu Hsueh, the long-time mayor of West Windsor Township and a water quality expert.
Hsueh, who had recently retired from he mayor’s job, started in a temporary capacity before being confirmed as full-time director of Trenton Water Works Dec. 6, 2018.
Communitynews.org senior editor Bill Sanservino interviewed Hsueh at Trenton Water Works’ headquarters in December to talk about the embattled utility and the task ahead of him to turn it around. Below is an edited version of that interview.
So how did you get involved with Trenton Water Works?
Reed and I belong to the same fitness center—RWJ in Hamilton. Sometime last February, he asked me to send him my resume. He said he was planning to run for mayor of Trenton, and he wanted me to help him with the water issues at Trenton Water Works if he got elected. So I said, “yeah, no problem.”
Most of the time, when someone contacts me for help, I try to offer them my knowledge. I never really had any other thought at the time that he would want me for more than that. I also never expected him to win the election, because there were seven candidates running. Finally, he ended up winning the election, but I still never thought he would want me for anything other than to help him out if he had any questions.
Then on July 1, I got a voicemail from Reed inviting me to come to his inauguration. I went, and during his speech, he said, “I have Dr. Shing-Fu Hsueh, retired mayor of West Windsor, taking over the water program.”
I was shocked. There were people around me saying “You’ve got to stand up!” “You’ve got to stand up!” “Show your face!” So I did.
Afterwards, when he walked down from the podium, I said, “We never talked about this! We need to talk tomorrow morning.”
That night when I got home, I told my wife he wanted me to take over the Water Works. She was furious. She said, “What did you do behind my back?” I said, “I didn’t do anything!”
Did you eventually convince her?
She is coming around slowly and becoming supportive. I told her I viewed this as a mission I really want to accomplish.
As for Reed, I went to his office at 9 a.m. the next morning, and he asked if I could help him for a few months, and I agreed to take over as acting director. Later that afternoon, I went on a tour with him of Trenton Water Works and met all of the employees.
Once I took over, I found out a lot about the operations here, and I couldn’t believe it. There was almost no management, no leadership, no organization. The culture was so loose.
They also had several consultants working here, but they didn’t communicate with each other. Nobody was making decisions. Each consultant, of course, once they get paid, didn’t really care about what was going on. And communication with the state was controlled or managed by the consultants.
Nobody here really understood the technical details. So I came in with the mayor and met with all of the consultants together. My question was, “Who is in charge of the coordination with the consultants?”
They all just looked at me. They just did whatever they were supposed to be doing, but nobody really provided them with any guidance or leadership.
Eventually I found out that they were supposed to report to the director of the Public Works Department. The whole organization was.
This is a very technical and specialized area, but Trenton Water Works reported to public works, whose major function is to pick up garbage, clean up and fill pot holes and keep the roadways in good conditions. The person assigned to watch this didn’t really have any background in running a water treatment facility.
Based on my background, I knew the problems right away. I spoke to the professionals working here—the city employees. I think that the day I took over, this place started showing signs of life again.
What made you want to take this on?
After I retired as mayor I planned to concentrate on my artwork and started organizing my memoirs. As for that, I did accomplish 25,000 words in Chinese, because there was a publication that wanted me to write something about myself. I thought I was going to continue the whole thing after that, but I’ve stopped there for now.
Well now there’s more to be written.
Yes, there will be more chapters coming. I feel that I have background, political experience and managerial capabilities to run this. In particular when a business is in trouble, it’s a challenge. That’s one of my characteristics. I don’t know whether it is good or bad, but when something is really down, I like to make sure they have the opportunities to bring it back up.
I’m not doing this for personal gain. I don’t have to do this for my resume. I just want to do the right thing. I think it goes back to my background as an immigrant. I feel like I have to show what immigrants can do for society.
Remind me a little bit about your background.
Going back to the beginning, I was one of the first waves of engineers who went through the environmental engineer training. In those days there was no environmental engineering curriculum at any of the major universities.
After I finished college in Taiwan, we had to do one year of mandatory military service. After I got discharged, I was running a chemistry laboratory at National Taiwan University. I had a group of college friends come together who wanted to help promote science and engineering education in Taiwan.
We didn’t have enough books or textbooks written in Chinese. This group of friends came together and we asked the textbook publisher for permission to officially translate all of their old science and technical books series into Chinese. I was given the water as my area to pursue.
Before we got permission, though, I got a position as a research assistantship at Rutgers University, so I left Taiwan. The organization eventually got dissolved, because the publisher took too long to respond.
When I got to Rutgers, my first assignment was working on water and heat transfer. In those days, people were very interested about power plants, where you have wastewater coming out at high temperatures. We were looking at the ecological impact. That became the topic for my master’s degree.
Then for my doctorate I studied the impact of the Sandy Hook Wastewater Treatment Plant on the Shrewsbury River. I actually lived there for one month to do experiments. Then for my dissertation, I focused on the analysis of the treatment plant, the estuary and the river. Basically, it covered all of the major water systems.
I got my Ph.D. in October 1974. After that, when I finished my dissertation, my advisor allowed me to start working for the DEP. That was a very easy transition. I was assigned to water resources—in the technical support group.
Most of the problems that came to me were issues that couldn’t be resolved. They came to me because they assumed I knew everything, because I had a doctor’s degree. It forced me to look into a lot of papers and a lot of technology and concepts about water.
At Rutgers there was a professor who left and went to the University of Tulane as a special lecturer. After he left, they asked if I could cover his courses. That’s how I got involved as a member of the adjunct faculty to cover those courses. Even today I’m still being retained as a member of the outside advisory committee for Rutgers’ bioengineering program.
In addition to your knowledge of the DEP and your scientific background, you also know how to navigate political waters, correct?
As a member of council and mayor in West Windsor, I ran in seven elections—all successful. I think Reed and a lot of local politicians were aware of the changes I made in West Windsor. (Hsueh served as an elected official in West Windsor Township for 25 years. For most of that time he was in a position of leadership—first serving as council president for most of the 1990s, and then as township mayor during the 2000s.)
What has it been like working with the mayor of Trenton and the city council?
At this point I feel very good about Reed. He has been here at the administration building and at the water treatment plant many times. Some people who have been here 20 or 30 years say they had never seen a mayor come in here before.
One of the major reasons I decided to stay on and become full-time director was because of the very strong support, up to this point, that I’ve gotten from the mayor and the council. If I didn’t sense that support, I think I would have left already.
Immediately after I took over, I presented more than 13 projects to the council to upgrade the facilities—one of which cost about $5 million dollars. It was my second or third month here and they approved all of them. Some of the people working here for a long time were very surprised it all got approved so quickly. I think that they trust me because of my background.
What are some of the hurdles you’ve faced?
It has been difficult to get people approved to be hired. It turned out that Kristin Epstein (assistant director) was the only person I was able to hire right away. She has an environmental engineering degree, an undergraduate graduate from Princeton, and a John Hopkins master’s degree.
She has a PE license, so it wasn’t too hard for me to get her hired. The mayor also pushed for her, because I told him that I cannot do this by myself. I had nobody coming in with me and nobody I could rely on. It took me three months to get her on board.
The problem I have is that I don’t have enough people. We have a 40 percent vacancy rate. They haven’t hired people here for a long time. Previous mayors’ administrations gave them a hard time. And not only that, a lot of the ones they did hire didn’t have good qualifications.
Why is it so hard to hire people?
We have to get approval from city operations—the office of personnel. Then we have to go through the state Department of Community Affairs, civil service and the DEP. That’s the process for anyone we want to hire.
I already interviewed and found 29 people I could hire right away. It’s already been more than a month, and I’m still waiting for a decision. The problem is the state agencies.
In what area is the highest number of vacant positions?
I need to have a group of people around me with different expertise to be able to handle different things. Right now we need to have at least 10 to 15 highly qualified individuals.
We are also trying to work with Mercer County College to develop a program, with some state and federal funding, to help us. The idea is to come to the city to recruit people who don’t have jobs to get training to fit into what we need. It would be a joint program with Rutgers University.
Also, the mayor has asked me to find a way to organize a state-of-the-art chemistry laboratory here. It would allow us to test all kinds of chemicals, including toxic substances. What I have in mind is to work with MCCC and Rutgers to help bring in the expertise we need. We can work the MCCC to help them modify the curriculum to train more people with technology backgrounds.
Who is analyzing the water now?
We have to rely on consultants. I want to be able to have the capability to do it in-house. And not just for drinking water. It could be used for wastewater and also the health department.
What other difficulties does the state present?
There are some issues with Administrative Consent Orders that have been issued by the DEP. I used to be in charge of water supply at DEP for the whole state before I retired. I know that when they issue an ACO, the DEP usually sits down with the party involved and they go over it together.
Nobody here ever got involved in negotiations with the DEP. It’s all been one sided. Whatever the DEP says, we have to do. After four months I found out the ACOs don’t really make a lot of technical sense.
I think for the first time in several years, someone sitting here has sent a letter to the DEP commissioner’s office and let them know we need to renegotiate. For some of the requirements, we are trying to comply, but my feeling is that some of them make no sense. I’m still waiting for a response.
I also have other state agencies involved. I wanted to go over things with the state agencies to make sure we come up with something that we can deliver, and that we can turn the water into something nice.
You think that can happen?
I’m very optimistic. This is all doable. This can be turned around provided the state gets off our back. The state agencies’ assumption is that no one here knows what they’re doing. But I know we can do it with the kind of people we have.
I found out there have been engineers here who have been left without having any important responsibilities for decades. One lady with an engineering degree has been here 17 years. I want her to temporarily be in charge of the filtration plant. I feel that she has the ability.
I asked her why she didn’t step forward and take more responsibilities in the past. She told me she couldn’t trust that the management would support her. I told her not to worry and to just do what is right. I would be 100 percent behind her.
At this point we are already starting disciplinary actions in some cases. Those who are not following the rules will face disciplinary action. A lot of people have said they’ve never had that kind of experience here before. Now they are starting to see the signals. We are serious about this.
It’s a matter of whether we have good and qualified professionals running all of the operations. I have a good feeling about some of the people who have been around for a long time and have been ignored. Once they see we are serious about this, I think they will come along.
The source of the drinking water here is one of the best in the state of New Jersey, the Delaware River. The source is upstream from Philadelphia, which is downstream after Trenton’s wastewater discharge.
Basically we have pretty high quality water. All it takes is to make sure we change the organizational culture here and get things moving. Of course there have been problems going on for the past couple of decades. I’m not going to be able to change everything overnight. We see very clearly we can take care of all of these problems one at a time, provided I continue to have the support of the mayor and the council.
How confident should people be in drinking water straight from the tap, and would you drink the water here on a regular basis?
I would drink the water here, yes. I don’t believe there is a serious problem. At home I drink tap water. My wife says I’m crazy, but I don’t drink bottled water. There are no water quality requirements for bottled water. They are only required to follow the same standards as soda and other soft drinks.
So you’re pretty confident the water is not making people sick?
Yes, that’s correct. There used to be nobody home here, but now we are watching what’s going on very closely. And when there is a problem, I follow up on it right away. I don’t mean it’s perfect. We still have a long way to go, because we still have those vacant positions to fill, and it makes it very hard for me to function.
There are a number of people who are not comfortable with the safety of the water. How do you address their concerns?
I understand. It’s human nature. I cannot do that overnight, but I hope that slowly through all our efforts at communications, people will see what can be done and what cannot be done. What makes sense and what doesn’t.
One of the problems I have is the City of Newark, which distributed free water filters to their customers. That was the wrong decision. It tells people that there’s a problem. Here in Trenton, we don’t have a problem.
“What we have to do is makeover, not takeover.” That’s what Congressman Chris Smith said. I invited him to come here and we went through a tour and I think he was very impressed by what we are doing here. I also had a meeting with the health officers from all of the towns. I am going to be talking to the mayors and other elected officials on a regular basis.
So we’ll start from there and hopefully we can get the message across. This is not a problem that just happened. It’s been going on for 20 years.
I think from the communities that are served there is a lot of pressure being brought on the city to get problems fixed.
I understand that, but I also understand that the politicians like to play this kind of game. Whether they understand what can be accomplished is questionable. The politicians like to play with that. As a matter of fact, when I invited some of the politicians to come and talk, they didn’t want to show up.
Some of the local community politicians?
Even state politicians. The thing here is that those who come and sit down with me seem to be coming along. I want them to understand all of the things going on here, and also wanted to take them to the filtration plant to see the real operations, because many of them don’t have this kind of background. Again, it’s common sense. If you see and if you understand how we function, then they can understand that there’s a future here.
You mentioned that you disagree with a few things that DEP is making an issue about. What are you referring to?
State agencies have a tendency to focus too much on the process and not on the final result. That is one of the problems with running governmental agencies.
Here’s an example. What you want as an end result of the DEP regulating TWW is high-quality water. That’s the objective. What the process needs to focus on is technical procedures and hiring enough people with the expertise to carry them out. Instead, their mentality is, “By this date you have to submit this report.”
There’s a lack of coordination with other agencies when it comes to hiring. Like I said before, I am trying to hire 29 people and I still can’t get a clear indication of whether we can hire them or not. Meanwhile, the DEP acts like we have unlimited resources to give them everything they ask for.
There’s also times where in order to do “B,” you have to do “A” first. But they want “B.” They don’t go by a logical process.
I am advocating for all of the state agencies involved to come and sit down and figure something out.
Here’s another example. Say we have a disinfection process violation, and it’s based on an annual average. Reed took over July 1, but we still have an average of what came before. It’s very difficult for us to meet the requirement because you can’t do enough to overcome what happened during the first half of the year. A reasonable regulatory agency would try to look at the trend of what’s going on.
The most important thing here is to maintain stability. That should be the issue for the current administration. They also should consider what was happening here before us, and how we got to where we are today.
We send out warnings because the state requires us to do so. When I first started here, I asked why we can’t explain more clearly in the violation notices what is going on. I was told that DEP won’t allow us to explain clearly. The regulations require exactly what you have to say. So there’s a lot of bureaucratic language that is used.
In order to deal with that, I’ve gotten the mayor’s permission for Trenton Water Works to have its own website, and it’s going to explain things in layman’s language.
I have one person here—who was not being used properly—and now he’s my public information person. He’s going to be working on this, and I want him to use plain language that people can understand to explain water data and what it really means.
Most of the people don’t really understand the bureaucratic information sent out in notices to every household. They think, “Oh, we’re going to get cancer!”
All of the water companies have some violations now and then. Nobody meets the requirements 100 percent of the time. Now with the City of Trenton, we have a violation and it becomes a big issue. And people get upset because all of the negative publicity over the last 20 years. It’s very hard to turn this around, but you’re going to see—hopefully before the end of 2019—a website ready to go.
It’s so bizarre. Why can’t we make the bureaucracy a little more friendly so that people can understand. There’s a certain kind of mentality coming from the old bureaucracies. They feel like their job is to try to get you. They are not trying to solve the problem.
Another area where DEP has called TWW to task is the requirement to construct a cover over the reservoir on Pennington Road.
The reservoir could be one of the few in New Jersey where there is storage for a three-day supply of the service area. That’s about 80 million gallons a day.
It was built, I believe, in 1899. How many years ago was that? About 120 years? The whole requirement is a result of a Federal rule that was passed about 50 years ago. In the whole state of New Jersey, nobody has followed that requirement. Nobody. TWW is not the exception.
I agree that the cover is a good idea, but it’s very expensive. Between $20 million and $30 million. And nobody can afford to do that. I’m going to meet the requirements, but I want to find the most cost-effective way of doing it.
What I’d like to do at this point is to take a few months to evaluate what would be the best technology available today to do it. We should be able to come up with something better than it used to be, which was to build a structure or a dome.
Are there other areas where you want to look at new technologies?
I think we can come up with something in the area of green energy. When I was mayor of West Windsor I tried to push for a solar microgrid for backup power to the municipal building and to power emergency services 24/7.
Unfortunately it didn’t go through (due to opposition from the West Windsor Council), but I think something can be done here in Trenton. I’m going to talk to green energy experts at the Board of Public Utilities about ways we can incorporate sustainable energy into this type of operation, including the filtration plant.
Last year on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, we had a power outage for only a few seconds. Do you know what that did to us? It took us time to recover operations in the filtration plant, because it takes one or two hours for the generators to power up. If we had a microgrid and there is a power outage, a solar battery can kick in for the backup generators to power the operation.
A number of town officials we have talked to have said their biggest problem has been communications, or lack thereof, from TWW. What have you done to improve communications with town officials and customers?
I have done four public meetings in the towns we serve. Out of the four meetings, two of them—Hamilton and Ewing— were a full house. There were more than 200 people at each of those meetings. We have a smaller service area in Lawrence and Hopewell, so the attendance there was a little lower.
During the meetings there were some people who were angry with me. There was one woman in Lawrence—she said she was an engineer—who told me I’ve been screwing up her water for 20 years. I said, “I just got here, it’s only my third month.”
But at the end of the meetings I felt very warm. A lot of people came up and thanked me for being willing to take over. They also see the light for the future. I think they feel comfortable with what I’m doing.
I can’t invite all of our customers to see our operations, but for the first time in history here, I’m inviting elected officials to visit us. I also plan to take them to see our operations step-by-step. I want to be open and transparent. I think it’s very important to be down to earth and talk to people.
We will continue to hold public meetings in all five municipalities we serve on a regular basis. I think that’s one of the best channels of communication you can have, because you can talk directly to the people. I will be able to respond directly to their questions.
Earlier I mentioned the website, which will help provide explanations of what’s going on with notices that customers receive.
We are also are asking for money to have fiber optic connections between our facilities—drinking water, wastewater, the reservoir system and the administration building here. I want to have more effective internal communications between all of them.
I have heard a lot of complains about people who call for customer service and have to wait for a long time, and sometimes they never get a response. The reason is that we have only one person doing that, and it’s not enough. Again, we have vacant positions here, but we cannot hire because we need to have all of the approvals. That hopefully will be changed.
A couple of days ago there was one situation where the mayor’s office told me that there was an individual who wanted to complain about not getting a response. I got that resolved in one hour. One it was taken care of, I called the customer, and he was very happy. He told me, “I’ve never seen the City of Trenton so effective before.”
From what you’ve seen, where do facilities upgrades need to be made?
Number one is disinfection. We are in the process of getting a new chlorine contact basin to kill bacteria. This is the $5 million upgrade I mentioned before that was approved by council.
We have two, and we decided that we need to replace one right now. From what I understand, they have never been replaced. They weren’t even going through regular cleanup, because of the shortage of manpower. Now I’m making sure it’s a priority.
We already had a full distribution line cleanup at the end of November, because I wanted it to be done right away. Nationwide, a lot of water quality problems come from the distribution system, so you have to clean it up on a regular basis. I also want to make sure that every year we use a high percentage of our surplus budget to upgrade our facilities on a regular basis, which hasn’t happened for a long time.
Organizational culture in another thing. In this kind of organization, it’s critical. There’s so many components here that they’ve got to be able to work together. You can’t miss links between any components.
I have weekly meetings with the managers, and they can tell me about problems or things they want to have resolved right away, and I will try to get them taken care of in a timely fashion. I want them to feel like we can make decisions as team a working together.
I think with all of these things, people can read between the lines as to whether you care or you don’t care.
Some of the water quality problems you’ve had are as a result of aging infrastructure, like with old lead pipes contaminating the water.
We are launching a program to eliminate the lead contamination of drinking water. Starting in 2019—and we have already gone out to bid on this—we are going to replace all of the pipelines connecting from our mains to the meter of individual households for $1,000. We’ll cover all of the additional costs. If a homeowner was to hire a plumber to do it for them, it would cost between $2,500 and $5,000.
It’s a good deal, and we already have the budget to cover 2,600 households. Once we hire contractors, we’ll check each household and see if they’re qualified or not. If the pipes are still relatively new, particularly after 1986, they’re not likely to have a problem. Before that, some have the problem and some don’t so we have to go through this process.
What about the families that can’t afford the $1,000?
One of the concerns I have is with low-income families. I want to try to talk to some people to see if we can some governmental support to help these families. For those families, $1,000 is a lot of money. I consider it one of the things I want to get resolved as soon as possible.
I also want to point out to people with old systems, if they run their water for one to three minutes, and then the problem with lead will be gone.
When people talk about lead problems, they bring up Flint, Michigan. But that’s a totally different story. Their problem had to do with the source of the water, and that is hard to get rid of. Here it’s not. It’s coming from the distribution.
With all of these so-called drinking water standards, the newspapers misinterpret that if you drink the water you’re going to get cancer. No.
The standards we have are based on studies using guinea pigs. For the situation to be comparable to a human, it would be a 5-foot, 8-inch tall 170-pound male drinking two liters of water nonstop for 60 years. So people shouldn’t get panicked when they see a few violations here and there.
Another thing that’s ridiculous is that the notifications mention that people should check with their physicians. I have to tell you, if you surveyed all of the physicians in New Jersey, no more than 5 percent can tell you about water quality issues.
They make the assumption that all doctors know about this. It’s more bureaucratic nonsense. A lot of people are saying, “I have to check with my doctor right away!” No. They can check with Dr. Hsueh.
Some state and local officials have been pushing for legislation that would give suburban customers “a seat at the table” by creating a board of representative from each town in the service area to run TWW. What’s your feeling?
I disagree with that approach. If I have regular meetings with the elected officials from all four municipalities, then they will know personally what’s going on.
If you have this legislation passed, they’re talking about having 17 committee members to oversee our operations. We already need approvals from DEP, DCA, Civil Service and, to some extent, BPU. Do we need more bureaucracy to stall the whole process?
How many of these 17 people will be water experts? How many of these people will be able to provide supervision to make sure that we have high-quality water?
We already have enough on our hands just dealing with DEP. My assistant director, she’s a very capable person. But now she spends almost all of her time dealing with the DEP. We already have enough supervision.
What I would like is for all of the towns and county health officers to meet with me on a regular basis. They have direct involvement here.
Don’t forget, you aren’t going to be in charge here forever, and the next director might not be as diligent as you. Would you support something that requires that TWW meet regularly with local officials?
I would like to see all of the public meetings that I’m doing now become a routine here. That would allow all of the local people to have a say in the process.
What about privatization? Having a company come in and take over the operation?
The reality here is that there is a political fight about whether TWW should be privatized or stay part of city operations. I understand that they held a referendum here years ago, and a big majority said that they don’t want Trenton Water Works to be taken over.
I don’t think the privatization will solve this problem. Politically that’s the easy way out. But a private company’s main goal is to make a profit. It could also lead to price increase for the customers.
I believe that if the city can have the right people doing the right things here, this could be the cheapest and one of the best quality water in the state, if we do it right.
In 2018 there were more violations issued than in 2017. Keeping in mind that you took over more than halfway through the year, when do you think people will start to see improvement here and a reduction in the number of violations?
I think if people watch the data trends and see that things are getting better, they will have some peace of mind.
It’s my responsibility to make sure we meet all of the regulations. We need to do much, much, much better to turn this around. I’m hoping that we’ll be able to meet all of this in one year. By next year, before Thanksgiving, we’ll have the new disinfection basin on line and that definitely is going to make a big difference.
On top of that, if we continue to stay on top of distribution maintenance on a regular basis, instead of the way it was before, things can come along. Give me a one year and I think we can see results. I’m not going to be able guarantee that it will be able to meet all of the criteria. Even the best drinking water companies in New Jersey don’t meet them all of the time. But definitely that’s some I am shooting for. I want to be better than average.