It has been an eventful first few weeks on the job for Steven J. Picco.

Steven J. Picco started as the interim director of Trenton Water Works in September 2019.

The new interim director of Trenton Water Works, Picco assumed his position Sept. 16. He dealt with his first crisis just 11 days later when a mechanical failure caused chlorine levels in the water to drop and a boil-water advisory to be issued. TWW uses chlorine to disinfect the drinking water.

The advisory lasted 30 hours, but Picco says TWW will carry the lessons learned in that two-day span for much longer.

Picco replaced Dr. Shing-Fu Hsueh as head of the utility after Hsueh resigned suddenly in early September. Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora had handpicked Hsueh to correct long-standing issues at TWW, one of the state’s largest water utilities. While Hsueh accomplished plenty in his year on the job, he also left behind plenty for Picco to handle.

Picco, 71, is no stranger to TWW or Mercer County. He grew up locally, living in Hamilton, Ewing and Trenton. He is a graduate of Ewing High School and Rider University. He moved out of the area 18 years ago, relocating from Pennington to Philadelphia.

He has worked as a lawyer for 45 years, including a stint with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection in its infancy. He later served as assistant commissioner of DEP, in charge of the department’s regulatory and legal operations, and rose to become deputy commissioner.

As a private lawyer, Picco specialized in evaluating environmental organizations. He has served as chair of Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital and of the Northeast-Midwest Institute, an environmental think tank in Washington, D.C.

Picco sat down with Community News Service managing editor Rob Anthes Oct. 10 in his office at TWW’s Cortland Street headquarters. A transcript follows:

You spent many years with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. At DEP, were you focused on the entire operation, or did you specialize in one specific area?

Steven Picco: I started out specializing in the legal and government affairs side. Because of the way the regulations were, I had this weird oversight of some water programs and the permitting process. You have to remember, it was a brand-new department, so there was this team thing where we were building from scratch water permitting programs, air permitting programs, the hazardous waste program. I wrote with two other guys the New Jersey Spill Compensation Act, which became the basis for the superfund statute.

And you were doing some things with Trenton Water Works?

SP: Yes, the first legal document I ever wrote as a baby lawyer for DEP was the hearing officer’s report ordering Trenton to cover the reservoir. In 1975, I believe it was. And here we are.

Here I am trying to dismantle that order because times have changed. That was 40 years ago. The way systems evolved since, the plan is to take the reservoir out of service as a reservoir, and place tanks in different locations around our system, which gives us a dispersed water storage. Nobody’s putting all their water in one place anymore. It will also solve some pressure issues, give us much more consistent pressure all across the system.

It’s something most of the experts think should have been done awhile ago, and I’m in the process with DEP to work out a capital program and timing to get that done.

That reservoir cover still hasn’t happened yet. So, the plan going forward is to never build it?

SP: Yeah, for the price of the cover and the time it would take to do it, we can probably get through one or two phases of this tank program. It’s a better long-term solution. It’s easier to maintain. And it’s better for the system.

And the tanks would be throughout the service area?

SP: We’d have four or five tanks. We haven’t gotten the final design. There’d be a pretty large tank—about a 20-million-gallon tank—near where the reservoir is now, for pressure purposes, among other things.

The next phase would be out in one of the townships, another one or two tanks slightly smaller than that. And then we’d be looking at different spots around our system for both storage and pressurization.

Right now, we have water towers. Everybody thinks the water towers are part of the system. They are in the sense that they’re connected to the water system. But they’re there not for water supply so much as water pressure. All that water up keeps the pressure going in the pipes below. We don’t get a lot of exchange of that water into the system. They’re really there as pressure points in the system.

What other plans do you have?

SP: I met with council. We’re in the middle of reviewing all our capital needs. The plan is to make an assessment of everything we have, what’s the maintenance, what’s the likely replacement time, put it all into a capital plan to go before council. It would be bonded over a 20-, 30-year period, so the impacts on individual ratepayers I don’t think will be significant.

We need to staff up. I hope that by whenever I turn this over to whoever’s not going to be the interim director that we have a fully staffed utility and a capital plan that he or she can implement going forward.

Where are you now with staffing?

SP: We’re under an order with DEP that has certain staffing things. We’re in the 80-90 percent range. The problem is, for reasons that are still unclear to me, we have a lot of consultants who are actually operating parts of the plant. It’s not a very efficient way. Technically, it’s fine. These guys are all qualified, and they know what they’re doing. But we’re paying a lot more on a per person basis than we should. The administration and council both agree that we should end those contracts and not renew them if we can possibly avoid doing so. And that’s what we’re doing. I have up before council [Oct. 15] a staffing resolution that will bring in a lot of those people as city employees.

We’re doing an overall staffing review; it hasn’t been done in a long time. We’re looking at functions, positions and organization. The idea is for me to turn over to my successor a functioning, clearly understood organization with well-defined civil service titles. That’s not something that happens overnight, but it’s something we’re actively working on now.

The water-boil advisory we had, the one thing that went really well with that was the technical side. It was pretty much all city employees. There was an equipment failure. It took awhile to find it, which is not surprising if you’ve seen the plant. There’s pipes everywhere. And it’s the kind of incident that you had to actually eyeball the pipe to see where the issue was. A large part of the plant is underwater, so you have to start draining places and look. But once they found it, they fixed it in a half hour. By the time the boil-water advisory was out, the plant was back at normal operation.

You could make an argument that we should’ve pushed harder and not issued the advisory. The DEP wanted us to. We thought it was a good idea. I’d rather issue an advisory that might have passed the red-face test than not have an advisory go out and either it turns into a real problem or the social media conspiracy theorists have something to latch on to. And that never goes away no matter what you do. We erred on the side of excess caution.

I’m going to get back to a few of those points because you’ve said a lot. But, with staffing, is there a requirement that you have to live in the city to work here?

SP: No. There is a strong preference. It’s a sliding preference scale: Trenton residents, service area, state of New Jersey, wherever. If we don’t have any qualified people in one category, we move to the next, and we work through the preference that way.

In your experience, is it more complicated to run a utility that’s municipally owned? If this was a private utility, you could just hire someone. Here, you have to go through this whole process.

SP: The answer is yes. It’s more difficult to work in a government environment in terms of hiring than a private environment. In a private environment, you post a job, somebody comes in, you like them. There are certain anti-discrimination laws you have to be aware of, but then you’re done.

Here, there’s a process. It’s a process. Lots of people have input on that process, so it’s much longer than what you have in the private sector. It’s a little frustrating at times, but it is what it is. You work with it.

Going back to the boil-water advisory in late September, what happened? What exactly was the issue?

SP: The alarm went off a little after midnight. If you’ve seen the water system, it’s just an array of gauges and things; it looks like a science fiction movie. They determined pretty quickly it was a low-chlorine situation. Not zero chlorine, but the chlorine was below where we wanted it to be. Chlorine’s added to the water to eliminate bacteria. There was never no chlorine in the system. It was just below the standard we wanted it to be.

The first thing you do when that sort of thing happens is take a look at where the chlorine is coming into the system. It’s pumped into our system. Whenever you have pumps involved, the first thing you do is look at the pumps. So they ran a test on both of the pumps that were involved. Both pumps passed. That means we’ve got a leak somewhere in the system. So you start looking at pipes. That took several hours to get done. They found it at about 6:30, and by 7, we were back to normal operation.

Because the incident continued more than four hours, we had to call DEP. We called DEP around 4:10. DEP put a team together immediately; they were very good about that. We were back and forth with them, discussing what the options were, what we thought the problem was, what we were doing.

About 4:30, they said, “We think you should go with an advisory.” We all kicked it around. “OK, we’re going to go with the advisory.” We went back and forth on what the advisory should say. The advisory was issued quarter to 7. [Editor’s note: In an Oct. 11 email, Picco explained that it takes time to draft and approve a boil-water advisory, thus the two-hour gap between deciding to issue an advisory and actually issuing it.]

What happens when that happens is [Michael Walker], who’s in charge of our communications effort, has a whole list of people he calls. We do an email blast. It goes up on various reverse 911; we have one, there are others. The word got out pretty quickly.

The problem with that was Hopewell Township. An error on our part left them off the initial advisory. The emergency response folks in Hopewell and the elected officials were basically telling people they weren’t in until we advised them a little bit later that they were in.

I immediately issued an apology. I called the mayor and explained what went on. I wrote a letter to the editor that went out the Monday following the event. I met with the Hopewell Township committee to give them the same message [Oct. 7]. They understood. They just wanted to make sure their constituents understood it was our problem and not theirs, which I was happy to tell them.

The good thing was the technical side worked. We had speed bumps in the notification. We had duplicate lists. We had some people that thought they should be notified and weren’t, but that was less a problem directly with us than with their own internal notification system. The bottom line, it caused us to take a look at our whole notification process and what we need to do.

So, we’re joining the county system, for instance. We weren’t part of the county’s reverse 911 system. We’re better coordinating our own 911 system with the city’s system. We’re going to have back-ups. There was an initial slight delay because there was one person in charge of the robocall operation. She happened to be on vacation. Fortunately, she was around, and came right in.

Where did we have delays? Why did we have delays? How can we eliminate the delays? It’s an exercise we’re continuing to go through. The good thing about all of that happening was it happened and nobody was hurt—in fact, as far as I can tell, there was no impact at the tap. There was no point during this that anybody had water they had to worry about. It also put us through this notification all of that, and we saw what worked and what didn’t work. One thing that struck me was the one system that worked best was the school notification system. The reason it worked best is they use it all the time. Systems that are used a lot are generally the ones that work the best because they’re constantly getting feedback on how they’re doing. We’ve added the school districts to our notification system. It’s just another way to get the word out as quickly as we can.

All in all, it was a good exercise for us. It inconvenienced a lot of people, which I understand. But I’d rather be in a position of inconveniencing people where we maybe had a choice than not letting them know there was a problem and somebody finding out a year later we had a problem and didn’t tell anybody. You’ve got to trust your public health guy. If the public health guys are playing political games or covering stuff up, you’ve got a serious problem. If we have a problem, you’re going to hear about it. We’ll take a lot of heat about it, but the alternative is worse.

At a certain point, communications is out of your control, though. Once you let the stakeholders outside of the city know, response varies. With the boil-water advisory, Lawrence Township notified residents immediately. Other towns waited a couple hours.

SP: I understand Hamilton didn’t get theirs out immediately. I think Hopewell got theirs out immediately, Lawrence got theirs out immediately. Ewing, some parts were out immediately and others weren’t.

They’re all going through the same exercise we’re going through. Any time you have one of these county things, stuff works, stuff doesn’t.

If it happens once, shame on me. It if happens twice, capital shame on me. You’ve got to learn from your mistakes. Own the mistake. Fix it. Move on.

Another aspect of this that the public might not understand is the lab testing. Some people might think you just fill a test tube with water, test the sample right away and you’re done.

SP: No. We have to do two tests in any kind of emergency of this type. First is chlorine. If you have a pool, a chlorine test is basically, you take the water, add something, look at the color. It’s almost instantaneous.

But there’s also bacteria. This one drives me a little crazy. I understand why it’s there, but it drives me crazy.

You have to take the sample. You have to get it to the lab. They have to hold it for 24 hours before they can read it.

The lab will tell you it’s a 24-hour test. In reality, it’s like a 30-hour test because you got to get the sample, you got to bring it back to a central location, you got to take it to the lab. The lab gets them, logs them in, then the clock starts.

So, anytime you’re thrown into a situation like that, that order or advisory is going to be at least a 24-hour and more like a 30-hour duration. We’re going to be much clearer. That was one of the things we were not clear about telling people.

We probably were a little naive in the advisory versus order. We were very careful to make it an advisory. The message there was, “There’s a problem. We’re on top of it. If you’re concerned about it, do this.” In the real world, if they get a water-boil anything, they’re going to take it as an order. I can’t say I wouldn’t do exactly the same thing. We’ve got to be more sensitive to the impacts of that going forward. Even DEP in our after-action meetings acknowledged that everybody should have made it a little bit clear about what we were doing and why we were doing it.

I heard about restaurants closing. There was no reason for restaurants to close. There was just this overreaction. But I get it. It happens, you learn, you move on. There’s nothing else we can do.

One of the hardest things for any public utility is to build and keep the public’s trust. Before September, it had been almost two years since there had been an event of this magnitude with Trenton Water Works. But people reacted as if something had just happened yesterday. The trust isn’t there. How do you build that trust with the public?

SP: Well, first of all, you stop having those events.

Second of all, we’ve started these town meetings. We’ll show up anywhere, answer questions, make presentations, whatever you want to do.

I found to my shock when I got here, through some Homeland Security concern that I don’t understand, we cut off our tours of the filtration plant. Especially the kids’ tours. The more you understand something, the more you’re familiar with it, the more you’re comfortable with it. This thing I have now in Hamilton Township with the water towers is a classic example of not understanding.

You’re open, you give people access, you answer their questions. It’s a long-term thing. It doesn’t happen overnight.

There was a period five or six years ago when this place was in a bunker mentality. When you go into a bunker mentality, everybody else goes into a bunker mentality. It takes a little while to get people out of the trenches and talking to each other again.

We’re starting. It won’t happen overnight, but we’re making the effort.

You mentioned the Hamilton scenario. Hamilton Mayor Kelly Yaede wrote a letter to you on Oct. 1, demanding answers about a TWW tank in Mercerville that contained water with what low chlorine levels. She also suggested that some cases of Legionnaires Disease in Hamilton might be caused by this low-chlorine water. Obviously, it’s an election year. There are politics at play.

SP: [laughs] Really?

But do you have any comment on the whole Hamilton situation?

SP: The mayor, I’m just going to take her letter at face value. Some official said there was historically low levels of chlorine in this water tower in Hamilton. And there are. But it’s not a water quality, drinking water issue. It stems from a misunderstanding of why those towers are there. They’re not there for water supply. They’re there for pressure.

The only time water is drawn down is if there is a big loss of pressure in the area. If that’s happening, we’re all over the place trying to find that water pressure. We’re going to be on that. It’s not something that happens that we don’t know about pretty quickly.

We had a program of periodically draining the towers into the sewer system, and filling them up with new water. It meets all the standards. We’ve been doing annually, maybe semi-annually. We just started a program in July to do it once every 4-6 weeks, which is better than the industry standard. The mechanics of that is we tie off water from the system, we have a pumper there maintaining pressure in the system. It drops the water into the sewer system. We pump new water back into the system. We test to make sure the water meets standards. We move on to the next.

There’s a constant program that pre-dates the water-boil advisory. I think the Hamilton one was done in August or September. It was done recent enough that it wasn’t a factor in any of this, isn’t a factor in any of this. It’s on schedule to be done again.

I get all this chatter—and I don’t think she mentioned it in her letter—she’s been quoted raising the Legionnaires Disease specter. I don’t know if it is politics or she doesn’t understand how it works.

If you go to the CDC website and type in Legionnaires Disease, you’ll get buried in information. But the gist of it is, you’ve got to breathe it. It’s water droplets that you’re getting. It’s direct lung contact. The disease itself doesn’t exist except in warmer water, and then it becomes droplets. You inhale the droplets.

It’s basically cooling towers—hence what I think the confusion is here—where you have a water accumulation that’s not maintained correctly. You’ve got warm water stagnating. Bacteria grows, and some bacteria might lead to Legionnaires Disease. You’ve got that in hot tubs; poorly maintained and chlorinated hot tubs are the same thing.

If you go on the website, you see all these questions. One of them is: can I get Legionnaires Disease from my tap water? In one area of the site, it says, “Impossible.” In another area, it says “Negligibly low risk.”

The point is, so much is happening to that water. It’s being circulated, moved, and it’s chlorinated. Just the movement of water in a chlorinated environment wipes out bacteria.

We have up-to-date chlorine sampling all around the system, including in Hamilton Township. We don’t have problems anywhere in the system.

It’s lower than the standard, but we don’t consider that part of the day-to-day system. Even if we did, the 4- to 6-week maintenance system we’re on would eliminate it anyway.

We didn’t do it for that reason. We just did it because it’s just good industry practice to get stale water out of the system wherever it happens to be. We’re doing it faster than we did before, on a regular basis.

So, to your knowledge, at no point was water in the Mercerville tower injected into the system?

SP: We had no low pressure readings there. Hamilton’s not in the center of our system; it’s out a ways. It would take a little while for that water to go where it was at the plant all the way to Hamilton Township. The water tower’s not a day-to-day source of water in the water system anywhere. It’s a pressure point, not a supply point.

There are a number of initiatives that were in progress before you came on board. One of them, started by your predecessor, was a program to add orthophosphate to the water. He had said in the winter that it would be in place for most of the water system by now. Are you doing that now?

SP: Yes. We are having a meeting on that later today.

Orthophosphate is basically a food additive. If you put that into your system in incredibly minute amounts, it has the effect of attracting any lead and literally attaching it to the pipe. This is all in microscopic quantities. You’re talking parts per billion here.

It’s very stable. It’s in place all over the country. Anyone that has a lead problem eventually does this. EPA’s approved it.

We’re a little late to the party. We put the bid out. We’ve awarded the bid. I expect that sometime in the next 30 days or so we’ll begin putting that in place. We’ll have a public notice—this is what we’re doing, this is how we’re doing it. So, it’s not going to be a surprise to anyone.

The lead that we have in our system comes from two areas. There’s old lead pipes that we’re in the process of replacing that are ours—and we have a good idea where they are and we’re constantly replacing them. The real problem is in the houses where the connection to our system is lead or that the soldering for copper pipes contains lead. Sometimes that happens.

This phosphate that we’re using is not meant as anything other than getting these trace amounts of lead out of the system. It works best when you have these kinds of localized, very low level but still of concern situations. It’s a way to protect the entire system.

When your water hits your house, it also goes somewhere else. Any backwash from your house back into the system is going to put lead into the line. Our whole idea is to protect the entire system with this, and then move to replace all the lead lines that we can identify and take out. Also, to encourage people to do the same in their houses.

On that issue, we are going to start the lead line replacement in Hamilton and Ewing in fairly short order. The bid’s been awarded. I’m waiting for an approval from DEP to start. Once we have that, we’ll give the contractor the OK to proceed. He’s got to mobilize. I’m hoping sometime late November, early December, we’ll start seeing crews doing that lead line replacement out in the townships.

Trenton, because it has taken so long to get the approvals, the contractor we awarded the bid to pulled out. We are rebidding the project. That will start a couple months later in Trenton.

We have a priority schedule worked out. Just yesterday [Oct. 9], the local finance board approved our plan limiting consumer costs to $1,000. No matter what it costs, the consumer’s going to pay no more than $1,000.

We’re setting up a system where you can pay that through your bills over time. It will kinda disappear in a month payment. We’ll roll all that out as the program rolls out. But the idea is to get this stuff out as quickly as we can, as inexpensively as we can, with the least financial impact on the consumer that we can devise.

Recently, on the federal level, a bill was signed into law that allows states to take its Clean Water money and turn it into Drinking Water money.

SP: We’re on it. Sen. [Cory] Booker was able to get [New Jersey] a $100 million grant for Clean Water stuff generally. He’s from Newark, so Newark got a portion of that money almost immediately. We’re in the application process now. That will all go towards defraying the bond costs, and just getting the program going faster and more comprehensively than we planned. This was going to be a couple-year plan. The more money we have, the faster we can get it done.

That’s a question for utilities around the country: how do you find the money to fund these projects?

SP: It’s all bonded, and then it goes into the rate base, and off you go.

In the marketing campaign you have now, it says that you planned to audit TWW. How is that going?

SP: We just got the bid from the auditor, which I approved. It’s government again. It will be up before city council. It’s reusing the city auditors.

This is called a process audit. They come in and look at how things are working, where things aren’t working as well as they should, how everything works together. It’s going to be focused a lot on our billing and collection operation, which we are now in position of upgrading.

It’s designed to analyze the inefficiencies, give us some ways to fix it. Just this week, I approved six new staff positions, three of them bilingual for customer service.

We were able to get an understanding with city council and the city that we need to staff up. They’re willing to support the efforts to staff up. It’s on us to explain what we’re doing clearly, so that everybody understands it.

How long do you plan on being in this role?

SP: [laughs] I joked with everyone who asked when I first started that my top priority was to find and recruit my successor. It’s becoming more urgent the longer I stay in this position.

In reality, I want to stay 6 to 9 months. It’s going to take that long to find the right person, let them get familiar with the plant.

The problem with this organization is, there was a lot of turmoil here, from outright criminal conduct—which is stuff of public record—to they weren’t paying attention, particularly during the Mack years. It takes awhile for an organization to recover from that.

City council has displayed their differences with the mayor on a variety of issues. I’m very clear this needs to function properly going forward, and they’ll do what they can to do it. The mayor’s made no bones about it—that’s why he brought Shing in in the first place. We have a meeting of the minds on that that I’m trying to take advantage of as quickly as I can. If I have particular expertise relevant to this, it’s getting decision makers together, and getting them pointed in the direction we want them pointed in. That’s what we’re trying to do here.

It’s been 10 years since the start of the Mack administration. How do change the culture?

SP: It’s a belief thing. It’s the same thing as the public. This place has gotten battered for years.

I’ve told mayor, I’ve told the council that you don’t want to recruit somebody who’s going to be here for two or three years. They offered me the position, and I turned it down for that reason. I came out of retirement. I didn’t come out of retirement to stay here two years and leave. I wanted it clear so that everybody understood that my role is to try to stabilize things here, put them on a good financial basis, recruit somebody who’s going to commit to staying here and bring some organizational stability. Move away from the consultants because that’s built in instability.

We want all our employees to be Water Works employees, as many in the City of Trenton as possible, as many in the service area as possible. If we do that and just continue to communicate to everybody, those things tend to fix themselves.

In the wastewater industry, there’s increasingly gap in knowledge as experienced employees retire and are replaced with people new to the industry. Is that true here? How do you train employees?

SP: We have a guy in-house, who’s actually one of the consultants, who’s also doing a training function for us. We have to promote from within whenever we can. That’s just a morale thing. It’s what every good organization does. The only way you can do that is by having a training module built into your operation. We don’t have that here.

The person who’s doing that training now is part of a consulting contract. We’re bringing him on as a direct employee. We have an agreement with Mercer County College, so our people go out there to get the training.

But the idea is, if you want to get trained to move up, we’ll pay for that training and make it possible for you to do that—in-house if possible. It’s the only way you can keep people, make them advance.