Trenton — Wastewater treatment companies have asked the Christie administration to allow more pollutants to be discharged into New Jersey’s rivers and streams. The Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) and a coalition of 17 other groups are opposing the proposed change in state Surface Water Quality Standards.
In order to reduce the cost of treatment, the wastewater facilities want to discharge effluent that exceeds the human health criteria for nitrates and total dissolved solids provided these standards are met at the point of intake for drinking water use. In New Jersey, rivers are a supply source for major drinking water.
“The last thing New Jersey rivers need is more sewage,” said Abbie Fair of the Association of New Jersey Environmental Commissions, which argues that the plan would violate both the federal Clean Water Act and the state Water Pollution Control Act. “It is unconscionable that the wastewater authorities want to turn our waterways into pollution treatment streams.”
By extending the “mixing zone” where pollutants exceed potable limits from the wastewater facility discharge pipe to drinking water intake points, the proposal would make longer stretches of receiving rivers and streams unsuitable for swimming, fishing or wildlife survival. Moreover, with shrinking water supplies, there may not be enough freshwater to dilute the treated sewage.
“Few people realize that sewer plants and industries discharge partially treated wastewater short distances upstream from water supply intakes. In summer when rainfall is low, 100% of the flow of the Passaic River is treated sewage water – there is no clean water left to dilute the outflow,” stated New Jersey PEER Director Bill Wolfe. “My concern is that this proposal may have already been secretly green-lighted by the Christie administration under the guise of regulatory relief.”
Current water quality standards are set to protect those drinking water supplies and limit the amount of dilution allowable in setting permit limits. However, current lax individual facility permit limits have caused ambient river water quality levels of nitrate to approach the drinking water limit. This is a critical problem because there is no treatment to remove nitrates from source water. High pollution levels also hamper the refilling of depleted reservoirs with pumped river water, exacerbating drought shortfalls.
Nitrates are known to cause “blue baby syndrome”, which can be fatal. Cumulative discharge of nitrates also has significant downstream ecological effects on bays, estuaries and the ocean, contributing to excessive eutrophication and oxygen free “dead zones”. Besides nitrates and dissolved solids, the proposal will also increase the amount of pesticides and other chemicals as well as un-metabolized pharmaceuticals, none of which are screened out of treated wastewater.
Under the state Administrative Procedures Act, the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has 60 days from its July 19 publication in the New Jersey Register to grant, deny or seek an additional 30-day extension to render a decision on this wastewater petition.
Even if approved by DEP, the relaxed standards would be subject to review by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for compliance with federal clean water standards. In addition, EPA has announced that it is considering nitrate as a potential candidate for a new health effects assessment due to concerns that ingested nitrate or nitrite can be carcinogenic to humans. Any reassessment would likely result in tighter nitrate limits that would cost water treatment plants far more than any savings they could hope to achieve by this proposal.