Union residents assured on drinking water safety

Photo by Alyssa Lidman
Scott Baxter-Green of New Jersey American Water, standing with microphone, explains to those gathered at a townhall-style meeting at the Union Municipal Building about NJAW’s delivery and quality control systems.

UNION, N.J. — New Jersey American Water Company administrators gathered with state and local officials to assure residents at an Oct. 15 town hall-style meeting that their tap water is safe to drink, stating that local water sources have tested below state limits for lead.

State Sen. Joseph Cryan, whose 20th Legislative District comprises Union, Hillside, Elizabeth and Roselle, organized the informational session. Also attending were Scott Baxter-Green, manager of water quality and environmental compliance at New Jersey American Water; Siobhan Pappas, coordinator for the Childhood Lead Program for the state of New Jersey; and Shawn LaTourette, chief of staff at the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The issue of lead in drinking water has been in the news in the past two months since Newark’s water was recorded to have higher than acceptable levels of lead due to the presence of the metal in the service lines that bring water from the mains under the street into buildings and residences.

New Jersey American Water issued an Oct. 10 release stating that in June and September it had completed testing of 14 of the 34 systems it maintains and found them to be in compliance with state water quality standards for lead and copper. But Baxter-Green said that anyone who needs reassurance that their water is safe should use a home test kit to test their water.

Pappas emphasized at the meeting that water is only one possible source of contamination and that New Jersey is one of 10 states requiring universal screenings for childhood lead poisoning. State regulations require every child between 1 and 2 years old be tested for elevated levels of lead in their blood. In addition to water, ingesting lead paint and dust can cause elevated lead levels in the blood. Children who test positive for elevated blood lead levels receive in-home nurse case management through the local health department.

“Depending on the blood lead level, the child would also get environmental intervention,” Pappas said. Environmental intervention is done through the local health department. “Environmental inspectors go in, they test the home … and if we find that the home has lead in it, New Jersey requires abatement. New Jersey decided to be very proactive and went for abatement.”

Union is serviced by two operational areas of New Jersey American Water. The north operations also include Berkeley Heights, Hillside, New Providence, Springfield and Summit; the central operations include Cranford, Fanwood, Garwood, Hillside, Kenilworth, Linden, Mountainside, Plainfield, Roselle, Roselle Park, Scotch Plains, Union, Vauxhall and Westfield. Baxter-Green noted that two reservoirs service Union: Spruce Run and Round Valley, both in Hunterdon County. The levels of lead that come out of the reservoirs is less than detectable; the majority of lead poisoning from water occurs through home plumbing via lead service lines or the lead solder used in them.

“Water must be free of any type of pathogens, bacteria, anything that would make you sick,” Baxter-Green said. “On a chemistry level, we want to make sure it meets requirements for carcinogens, organics, inorganics and radiological contaminants. Most of our water is a surface water supply. We also add a corrosion inhibitor, which forms a coating around the water pipe. The one that we use is orthophosphate.

“So, if you had a lead service line, it forms a film on the inner diameter of the pipe and acts as a barrier and prevents any of that lead from leaking out into your drinking water. So, that’s a very important component of our process.”

He added that New Jersey American Water adds chlorine to its water supply.

Hillside Mayor Dahlia Vertreese addressed the panel, noting many residents in her town are concerned about water safety.

“In Hillside, we do have some of our residents that were serviced by the city of Newark, and those residents actually received letters — from what I could tell — two years ago, addressing some of the lead issues that they may or may not have had depending on their lead service
lines,” she said.

“However, there were some NJ Water Company customers, who felt that because they also received bottled water, and it became a kind of a political fiasco, that New Jersey American Water was not subject to the same regulations, and would not have been as transparent with them, as the city of Newark was because the city of Newark would be considered public and New Jersey American Water was private. And so, they felt as if they would not access the new information or be notified if there was an issue in the same manner.”

LaTourette, of the NJDEP, assured Vertreese that private companies fall under the same rules as public entities.

“Both New Jersey American Water and the Newark water company have the same exact obligations,” he said. “So, if New Jersey American were to have had a lead action level exceedance for the customers within Hillside, those customers would have been required to see that notice. Part of the confusion was that the city has a small portion that is serviced by Newark.”

Elizabeth resident Danielle Fienberg asked the panel about the low level of corrosion inhibitor in her city’s system. She said it was alarming that Liberty Water, part of the New Jersey American Water system that serves the city, buys some of its water from Newark.

“I was concerned about Elizabeth’s water because Liberty Water was purchasing 40 percent of their water from Newark’s Wanaque and Pequonnock Reservoirs. I had moved to Elizbeth to save my son from further damage from the lead pipes from the house that we lived in in Newark. I went through drinking water websites, and I found that the pH levels in the Raritan system, which is the predominant provider to Elizabeth, have consistently been below 7. Why is the orthophosphate level so low?”
Baxter-Green answered that no two water systems are the same.

“Our corrosion controlled-program was based upon what we call coupon testing,” he said. “We had a whole pipe loop series where we inserted lead inputs into the water stream to directly measure the lead loss. We’ve done that in different dosages. Our target pH is about a 6.9.”

Home testing is the best way for residents to have peace of mind, according to LaTourrette.

“From the DEP perspective, that conflicting information can be of concern,” he said. “The thing to keep in mind is that no two systems are created equally, just as no two homes are created equal. And so, because this is largely an issue that occurs when the water leaves the system and enters onto that private property, where lead in the service line could be present or lead on the property could be present.”