Trenton — A five-year effort to update limits on more than 30 contaminants commonly found in New Jersey’s drinking water appears to be doomed by the anti-regulatory stance of the Christie administration, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). As a result, New Jersey residents will continue to be exposed to chemicals ranging from benzene to formaldehyde in amounts that its expert Drinking Water Quality Institute (DWQI) has found unsafe.
Established in 1985 under the state’s Safe Drinking Water Quality Act, the 15-member DWQI determines the scientific basis of maximum contamination levels for chemicals in drinking water and then makes recommendations to the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to promulgate regulations enforcing drinking water standards. In March 2009, DWQI finished its review of 31 chemicals and issued a report recommending new or tighter standards for 13 chemicals, including:
- New standards for five currently unregulated chemicals, including formaldehyde and methyl ethyl ketone;
- Tighter standards for eight chemicals, including benzene and vinyl chloride; and
- Looser standards for three chemicals.
One of the most worrisome findings of the DWQI was the need to enact new very strict limits on highly toxic contaminants, such as 1,2,3- trichloropropane, about which the DWQI stated:
“1,2,3-TCP is DNA-reactive, clearly genotoxic and mutagenic, caused tumors in a number of tissues in both the rat and the mouse, and metastatic forestomach tumors were found in variety of locations.”
In February 2010, the longtime Chair of the DWQI, Dr. Mark Robson of Rutgers University, resigned when it became clear that the DEP under outgoing Gov. Corzine would not act on the DWQI’s March 2009 recommendations. His successor will presumably be announced at the upcoming DWQI meeting this Friday, May 7. That meeting, the first under Christie, may also reveal the future of the DWQI itself.
The Christie administration just finished a comprehensive regulatory review, called the “Red Tape Review” which did not mention anything about the need to tighten contaminant standards for drinking water, as recommended in the DWQI March 2009 Report to DEP. In fact, the Christie review targeted a number of current water pollution and other environmental rules for repeal or relaxation. In addition, Gov. Christie would impose a new “cost-benefit analysis” for all future regulations that may require significant adverse health effects to large populations in order to justify any new rules deemed expensive.
“Clean drinking water will be a major challenge for the Christie administration which wants to put business promotion on a par with public health,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe, a former DEP analyst, pointing to DEP’s new economic development emphasis. “Political appointees now say they want to depend on ‘sound science’ but here the science is already in and it is just flat being ignored.”
As a prime example of the Christie administration’s difficulties with drinking water protection, PEER points to perchlorate, a component of rocket fuel found in many state waters. A proposed tight new limit, which came from an earlier DWQI study, was allowed to die this March. Facing public and legislative criticism, last week DEP Commissioner Bob Martin (who had earlier testified that the science behind the perchlorate proposal was “shoddy” and there was “no data” supporting adverse health impacts) reversed himself after PEER revealed that, contrary to Martin’s public assertion that U.S. EPA was poised to act imminently on the chemical, that federal regulation is still years away. On April 29, 2010, his spokesman said “The commissioner does plan to institute a perchlorate regulation as quickly as possible.” It is not clear, however, when these new limits will be in place or how they will be set.
“The anti-regulatory rhetoric of the Christie administration will continue to trip them up, just as it did with perchlorate,” Wolfe added. “There is no way around the fact that protecting our drinking water from growing chemical contamination necessitates government action.”
New Jersey PEER is a state chapter of a national alliance of state and federal agency resource professionals working to ensure environmental ethics and government accountability