Years of threats came to fruition in late May, as the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection announced its intention to sue the City of Trenton, citing as the final straw Trenton council’s “inexplicable failure” to properly fund the city’s drinking water utility.

In a letter dated May 21, DEP commissioner Catherine McCabe takes Trenton city council to task, saying its May 7 vote to reject millions of dollars in bonds for crucial measures will prevent Trenton Water Works from providing safe drinking water to its customers.

Trenton Water Works’ filtration plant on Route 29 South.

“To be clear, the council’s inexplicable failure to adopt these measures will prevent TWW from meeting critically overdue legal requirements of the [Administrative Consent Orders] and the Safe Drinking Water Act,” McCabe wrote. “These requirements are necessary to ensure a safe and reliable water supply, not only for the City of Trenton, but also for the 217,000 people served by TWW in Ewing, Hamilton, Hopewell and Lawrence Townships.”

The measures defeated by council would have provided nearly $100 million in funding for three projects: improvements at TWW’s water filtration plant, the replacement of 63,000 outdated water meters and the transition away from Trenton’s open-air reservoir on Pennington Avenue to a new, decentralized water storage system. The reservoir has long been an issue for TWW—it has spent more than a decade out of compliance with a DEP order to cover the tank.

Though a majority of council voted in favor of the funding, the measures fell one vote shy of the required 5-vote supermajority. Kathy McBride, Santiago Rodriguez and Robin Vaughn were the dissenting members.

McBride, Rodriguez and Vaughn routinely have used their legislative powers to battle with Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora’s administration over what they claim is out-of-control spending at TWW. In February, they spearheaded a campaign to require a forensic audit of the city’s Department of Water and Sewer; the ordinance passed, 6-0. In March, McBride put forth a resolution requiring the TWW director to appear before council quarterly. Council approved it, 6-0.

The administration counters that its initiatives are merely the cost incurred for the city having booted needed improvements down the road for many years.

“These are no small projects,” TWW spokesman Michael Walker said. “They are necessary to ensure high water quality for years to come, and should have been initiated years ago.”

Trenton’s water utility has been in focus for most of Gusciora’s term due to its historic struggles before he took office in July 2018. In the 26 months between January 2017 and February 2019, TWW received 29 DEP violations. It has received three in the 15 months since, and none in the last year.

Gusciora hired former West Windsor Mayor Shing-Fu Hsueh as TWW director in July 2018 to correct the deficiencies. Hsueh, a former DEP director, served in the role until September 2019, when he quit suddenly, allegedly out of frustration with a lack of support from Trenton’s council.

Steve Picco replaced Hsueh that same month as interim director, picking up where his predecessor left off. Picco formulated an ambitious 6-year, $405 million capital improvement plant for TWW, which included replacing the system’s lead service lines. Picco increased staffing levels at TWW, another chronic issue at the utility that had drawn DEP’s attention.

Steven J. Picco served as the interim director of Trenton Water Works from September 2019 until December 2019.

Council forced Picco out of the job after just three months, refusing to reappoint him at its Dec. 19, 2019 meeting. McBride, Rodriguez, Vaughn and George Muschal voted against Picco’s reappointment.

During that same meeting, council twice rejected, 4-3, $11.8 million in bonds for improvements to the water utility. McBride, Rodriguez and Vaughn were the dissenting votes.

Council later appointed David Smith as TWW director. He still holds the position, and has continued to pursue Picco’s capital improvement plan.

DEP commissioner McCabe, in her May 21 letter to the City of Trenton, acknowledged the strides TWW has made under Gusciora.

“While DEP must now take the unfortunate step of seeking judicial intervention, we also recognize that Mayor Gusciora has proposed appropriate actions to enable TWW to make the necessary improvements to its water supply system,” McCabe wrote. “The City Council’s refusal to provide the necessary financial support to achieve these legally required public health obligations simply leaves us no other choice.”

Municipal leaders in the TWW service area outside of Trenton welcomed DEP’s move, particularly because it seemed the state had stepped in on behalf of TWW’s suburban customers.

Since the City of Trenton owns the infrastructure providing water to all TWW customers, those in the suburban towns of Ewing, Hamilton, Hopewell Township and Lawrence are tethered to Trenton and can’t merely switch water utilities. Suburban TWW customers also have no recourse should they disapprove of the service they’re receiving. Trenton residents can voice their displeasure with votes, on the other hand, since Trenton’s administration and council make the decisions on TWW’s funding, staffing and operations.

“I applaud DEP for its leadership in ensuring safe and clean drinking water for all of Trenton Water Works’ customers,” Hamilton Mayor Jeff Martin said in a statement. “Legal action is a necessary but unfortunate step to take. We will join, and work with, DEP in its legal action and will not stop fighting until we are satisfied that all necessary steps are taken.”

Lawrence Township manager Kevin Nerwinski perhaps best summed up the suburban customers’ point of view in a Facebook post May 22.

“As I have said over the past year or so, TWW has made very good progress in improving its facility,” Nerwinski wrote. “The City of Trenton’s council members have caused this progress to go off the rails (in my humble opinion) for reasons that they still have not expressed publicly.

“We all deserve a consistently safe water supply from the utility we pay to provide that resource. We will continue to advocate until there comes a day where we all don’t have to think twice about the water coming into our homes.”