The Record: Toxic taps? Water contamination needs to be a priority in Trenton

ON THE list of humankind’s most basic needs, nothing ranks higher than clean water. On that same list, little ranks lower than government bureaucracy.

-originally posted on September 21, 2016


These facts were brought home with tragic clarity during the Flint, Mich., water crisis, when elevated levels of lead were discovered in the city’s water supply and state officials failed to respond quickly.

Yet one positive thing to come out of that crisis was a renewed sense of urgency on the part of environmental advocacy groups and government officials in making sure our nation’s water supply is clean and plentiful. That’s important because this week another clarion call on safe water was sounded.

As Staff Writer Scott Fallon reported Wednesday, a metal that can cause cancer has been found in drinking water throughout New Jersey, including all systems that serve Passaic and Bergen counties.

While state officials stress there is no need for public panic about the levels of hexavalent chromium in the water, there is plenty of reason for concern.

There is also a need to make this contamination a priority — especially in Trenton. The Environmental Working Group says state regulators have backtracked on establishing a more stringent health standard for the metal.

“We should always be striving for stricter standards and this administration simply does not want to,” said David Pringle, the New Jersey campaign director for Clean Water Action, who said politics has gotten in the way of enacting more stringent standards. “We don’t want to be playing Russian roulette with our drinking water.”

The new concern about hexavalent chromium, which has long been a source of anxiety in Garfield, where tons of chromium-laden sediment has been removed in recent years from the former E.C. Electroplating site, comes by way of a new national report issued by the Environmental Working Group.

The report issued Tuesday is a compilation of thousands of samples taken nationwide from 2013 to 2015. The tests found the metal in almost 90 percent of the water systems sampled; Oklahoma, Arizona and California had the highest average statewide levels.

Locally, levels of the metal ranged from Wayne Township’s average of 0.009 parts per billion to Garfield’s 0.7 parts per billion, which is the equivalent of a drop of water in an Olympic-sized pool.

Hexavalent chromium is nasty stuff. It has been known to cause lung cancer if its crystals are inhaled and stomach tumors if consumed, according to federal health officials. The government has labeled chromium a “serious threat to human health.”

Meanwhile, in places like Garfield, where residents have lived with the nightmare of chromium contamination in groundwater for 30 years, uncertainty remains despite the announcement Wednesday that a federal cleanup plan has finally been ordered — without a real source of funding.

At what level hexavalent chromium becomes harmful to humans is still being decided. What we know is that New Jersey could be doing a lot more than it is to effectively measure and neutralize the metal’s dangers, in part by raising state standards.

A committee of scientists that helps establish water standards for the state recommended in 2010 that the standard for hexavalent chromium be set at 0.07 parts per billion, yet that effort has stalled because of politics and problems regarding the Drinking Water Quality Institute, which advises the Department of Environmental Protection on standards.

Governor Christie, who has at times been willing to cut through red tape and get things done that he wanted, should act again on the menace of hexavalent chromium in New Jersey’s water, and bring the state to apply more stringent standards for this cancer-causing metal.

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