TRENTON — The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection is taking the long-awaited steps to establish water safety standards for a chemical that has turned up in high concentrations in public water wells in Moorestown and Maple Shade. The chemical in question is 1,2,3-trichloropropane, also known as 1,2,3-TCP, and was long ago labeled as a "likely carcinogen" by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, but it is still unregulated by the federal government and most states. New Jersey would become only the third state to adopt a limit on the chemical. The others are Hawaii and California, which approved a limit last month of 0.005 micrograms per liter.
New Jersey's proposed maximum contaminant level of 0.030 micrograms per liter would be lower than Hawaii's 0.600 limit but substantially higher than California's.
DEP documents about the proposed rule indicated that a much stricter limit of 0.0005 micrograms per liter was also considered. The higher limit was selected because it is the level "to which the contaminant can be reliably measured at this time."
The DEP estimated that the proposed new rules will require most public water systems to spend about $2,000 more on monitoring in the first year, but that costs will decrease to as little as $500 every three years for some systems where elevated levels of the chemicals are not detected.
Treatment for 1,2,3-TCP is expected to cost between $500,000 and $1 million for large systems, according to the DEP.
The proposed limit was published in the New Jersey Register on Aug. 7, and the department is accepting comments on the proposal. A public hearing is scheduled for Aug. 29 at the DEP's headquarters on East State Street in Trenton.
If adopted, the proposed regulation would require small public and private water systems to begin monitoring for the chemical in 2019. Larger systems would need to begin monitoring in 2020.
DEP officials said many drinking water systems already test for the chemical as part of an ongoing federal program that monitors contaminants of emerging concern that are not already regulated. But adoption of a formal maximum contaminant "will require all systems to monitor and take corrective actions, such as installing treatment systems, if warranted," officials said.
In addition to the limit for 1,2,3-TCP, the proposed rule would establish a limit for a second chemical, perfluorononanoic acid, or PFNA, which has been linked to firefighting foam used at numerous military bases across the country, including Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst.
Elevated levels of PFNA and other perfluorinated compounds have been discovered in the groundwater at some locations on the joint base.
The DEP is proposing a limit of 0.013 micrograms per liter for PFNA. If adopted, New Jersey would become the first state to create a limit for the chemical.
Both limits were recommended by the state Drinking Water Quality Institute, an advisory panel made up of scientists and health experts to recommend safety standards for chemicals based on the latest scientific findings.
The institute previously issued a recommendation for the DEP to set a limit of 0.030 micrograms per liter for 1,2,3-TCP in 2009. But the department never acted on it, in part because the federal government was believed to be in the process of establishing its own standard.
The issue didn't garner much attention until the chemical was discovered in water samples from two Moorestown wells in 2013 and three wells in Maple Shade in 2014.
In Moorestown, the contamination led to the shutdown of two wells in October 2014 and forced the township to spend millions on buying extra water from New Jersey American Water, as well as develop and install a temporary filtration system at its North Church Street water treatment plant.
The filtration system allowed one of the contaminated Moorestown wells to reopen earlier this year, and the township is now exploring a permanent treatment solution.
Maple Shade voluntarily shut down one of its wells. The other two, which have lower contamination levels, have continued to operate but are closely monitored. The town is also pursuing treatment plans.
The source of the 1,2,3-TCP in the two Burlington County towns' drinking water systems is unknown, but the discovery was cited by lawmakers who proposed various bills intended to set a deadline for the DEP to take action on a Drinking Water Quality Institute recommendation.
One of the bills, sponsored by state Assemblymen Troy Singleton and Herb Conaway, would have required the DEP to adopt the recommendation for 1,2,3-TCP within 180 days. It was approved by the Democratic-controlled Legislature in 2015 but was vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie, who argued that forcing the department to adopt the advisory panel's recommendation was too extreme.
"While I share the sponsors' concerns regarding the presence of chemicals in our drinking water, I believe that this bill threatens the current system of protection we have in place," the governor wrote in his 2015 veto message. "This bill would elevate the (Drinking Water Quality Institute's) role from an advisory panel to one with binding authority. It is inappropriate to change our system of drinking water protection with regard to the consideration of one chemical, and to remove the department's independent review of the institute's recommendations."
In 2015, the DEP also asked the institute to revisit its 2009 1,2,3-TCP recommendation to make sure it was based on updated scientific findings.
Singleton, D-7th of Palmyra, reintroduced legislation to force the DEP to adopt a contamination limit specific to 1,2,3-TCP this summer before the agency published the new rule. In a statement Monday, he said that the DEP's action was a "step in the right direction," but that the proposed "time delay" in implementation was "deeply concerning."
"TCP is a persistent pollutant in groundwater and had been classified as 'likely to be carcinogenic' to humans by the federal Environmental Protection Agency," Singleton said. "I strongly hope that the department will reconsider the delay in implementation of this new standard after hearing from the public during the comment period."
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, was also critical of the proposed timeline, arguing that it continues to put people at risk.
"These rules should have been in place many years ago, and we have been drinking contaminated water all this time," Tittel said. "The more DEP delays action, the more people are drinking contaminated water."
Moorestown Water, a grass-roots group that formed in the wake of the township's water issues, said the DEP's proposal was a positive development, and it urged residents to comment.
"This is good news that this proposal was finally put forth for consideration, and now it is up to the people to convince DEP to adopt it," the group said in a Facebook post.