The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection is also requiring the Bordentown City Water Department to conduct laboratory studies on its pipes, or cite studies of similar water systems, expand its water quality testing, consider all potential treatment options, and evaluate iron and manganese within the system because of ongoing lead issues.
BORDENTOWN CITY — The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection is requiring the city water department to redo a plan to lower the corrosivity of its water, after the system exceeded federal drinking water standards for lead in four straight testing periods, according to a DEP letter sent to the city on July 1, which was obtained by this news organization through an open records request.
The DEP will also require the city to complete an in-depth “demonstration study,” which includes various scientific analyses, such as physical pipe inspection and advanced water quality testing. That study must begin by Aug. 15 and be completed within one year, the DEP said.
The city’s water system, which also serves Bordentown Township for a combined population of 16,000, has struggled for nearly two years with elevated lead levels. While lead has not been found in source water and the city states it has no lead water lines, federal law requires water authorities to provide noncorrosive water to customers, in order to prevent lead leaching out wherever it is found.
City officials say lead is coming from in-home plumbing, potentially from pipes or solder. An analysis by this news organization found that approximately 37% of the homes officially tested in Bordentown over the past two years had at least one lead reading above 15 parts per billion (ppb), the “action level” set forth by the Environmental Protection Agency. In the most recent six-month testing period ending June 30, 18% of homes tested exceeded that figure.
Last summer, the DEP approved a plan from the city to try and control the corrosivity of its water by adding more lime to the system to balance pH levels, along with adding chemicals called orthophosphates. Those chemicals can coat the insides of pipes, potentially preventing the leaching of lead.
City officials said the plan was fully implemented last November, and indicated last winter they believed there were some improvements in the system. But after the system violated the lead standards again last month, the DEP said in its letter that “water quality parameters ... are not being optimized.”
In particular, the DEP pointed out that pH levels continue to fluctuate. Last fall, the levels ranged from 8.06 to 7.02, and in May, from 7.64 to 9.39. Bordentown is supposed to try and keep pH between 7.2 and 7.8 to ensure the effectiveness of the orthophosphates, according to a letter the DEP sent last summer.
“In response to continued lead action level exceedances and review of water quality parameters, the bureau has determined that a corrosion control study and (updated treatment recommendation) are required,” said the letter, written by Joseph Mattle in the DEP’s Bureau of Water System Engineering.
But the letter said Bordentown City must do more analysis than it did last year, by completing a “demonstration study,” to evaluate potential solutions.
Experts say such a study is a gold standard in determining the cause of lead corrosion. A study performed in Brick Township, Ocean County, several years ago determined road salt use was partially to blame for elevated lead levels, and a similar study completed earlier this year in Newark identified failures at the water treatment plant as related to ongoing lead problems there.
Bordentown’s study will require the town to conduct laboratory studies on its pipes, or cite studies of similar water systems, expand its water quality testing, consider all potential treatment options, and evaluate iron and manganese within the system.
It will also require the water system to more thoroughly examine the ratio of chlorides to sulfates in the water. As first reported last September, several experts told this news organization that Bordentown’s water appeared to be corrosive, including on a scale that evaluates the chloride-to-sulfate balance.
Marc Edwards, an engineering professor at Virginia Tech who spearheaded an independent investigation that uncovered high lead levels in Flint, Michigan, also said the use of orthophosphates can sometimes exacerbate lead problems if the chloride-to-sulfate ratio is elevated.
An EPA guidance document completed by the city and submitted to the state last summer, further recommended the consideration of a demonstration study, but NJDEP and city officials said at the time they were comfortable with the plan to adjust pH and add orthophosphates.
This news organization only learned of the DEP’s July 1 letter after state Sen. Troy Singleton, D-7th of Delran, wrote his own letter to the department last month, pressing it on the lead issue and mentioning the study. The DEP has yet to respond to this news organization’s numerous requests for comment about the study over the past several weeks. Singleton’s office said Thursday it also has not received a response to his letter.
At a public meeting in Bordentown City last week to discuss the lead issues, the city’s commissioners made no mention of the July 1 letter or new study requirement from the state. When asked at the meeting about Singleton’s letter and a potential new study, commissioner and water director Joseph Myers only alluded to the existing plan.
“We’re always looking at improving our (plan),” Myers said.
Mayor James Lynch Jr. said he’d read Singleton’s letter but didn’t understand “the gist,” and also didn’t mention the July 1 letter. Asked why, Lynch said Thursday he didn’t know about the DEP’s July 1 letter, which was addressed to John Walls, the operator of the water system.
“I wasn’t aware of this letter,” Lynch wrote in an email. “I know we get correspondence from the State from time to time but I’ll have to review this with Commissioner Myers.”
This news organization asked Myers Thursday why the letter was not mentioned at the meeting, whether the city intends to comply with the DEP, and whether it believes its current corrosion treatment plan is working.
In an email, Myers said the city “intends to comply by continuing or modifying the full-system demonstration test begun last November.” He did not say why the letter was not mentioned at last month’s meeting.
“If needed, the test will be modified to reflect recent results and conditions,” Myers wrote, adding that the city continued to monitor lead levels. “We are reviewing the results with our experts, and if we conclude a change is warranted, we will work with NJDEP.”
Singleton’s office provided a statement that the “senator remains committed to working with both the DEP and Bordentown officials to ensure that the drinking water is safe for all of their residents.”