Middlesex Water Co. insisted that its supply to some 29,000 residents is safe and that there’s no reason for it to provide alternative sources like bottled water even though water from part of its system contains a toxic “forever chemical” at above a new state health limit for drinking water.
At a public meeting Monday night, the utility’s president, Dennis Doll, defended his decision not to pay for bottled water, install filters, or pump from other sources, saying there’s no threat to public health despite the company’s recent discovery that the presence of a chemical known as PFOA exceeds a maximum contaminant limit implemented last year by the Department of Environmental Protection.
“If this were truly a health emergency, an acute threat that posed an immediate health risk, we would pay for filters, we would pay for bottled water, we would do what it takes to keep our customers safe,” Doll said. “But at the levels we’re talking about, we do not believe this is an immediate health risk.”
Confusion over whether the water is safe to drink prompted the mayors of Woodbridge, Metuchen, South Plainfield and Edison to hire a consultant to advise them on how to proceed. Woodbridge Mayor John McCormac said the town leaders want to make sure they understand what both the DEP and Middlesex Water are saying.
“We’re not going to get in the middle of it but our residents are going to ask us questions and we want to be able to answer them with the answer from our expert,” McCormac said in an interview with NJ Spotlight News.
McCormac said the towns decided to hire a consultant for that outside perspective, not because they didn’t trust either the company or the DEP.
“They are coming at it from two different angles,” McCormac said. “One’s a private company, the other is a government. We just want to be able to tell our residents that we understand the issues, and the only way that can happen is if we have our own person explaining the issues to us.”
The consultant will help determine if residents need to buy bottled water or install filtration systems, McCormac said. “I just want them to have the facts.”
Notice sent last week
On Friday, the company issued a required “notice of exceedance” to residents of six towns in Middlesex and Union counties — South Plainfield, Edison, Metuchen, Woodbridge, Clark and Rahway.
The letter advised that test results in September showed water from a South Plainfield treatment plant contained the chemical at levels above the state’s new limit of 14 parts per trillion — which DEP has determined is the safe limit for human consumption over a lifetime.
The notice drew dozens of people to a meeting at Colonia High School where many said they were fearful of the health consequences of drinking water that contains the chemical outside a regulatory limit, and were struggling to reconcile the company’s assurances that the water is safe with the DEP’s determination that it is not.
A resident who identified himself as Ricky asked company officials if, while PFOA remains above the regulatory limit, they would pay for bottled water, which he said costs $2.25 a bottle at the high school where he teaches.
Doll said the company anticipates that the PFOA level will remain at about 20 ppt, or 6 ppt above the DEP limit, until a new $47-million treatment plant opens in mid-2023 but he insisted that the water remains safe to drink.
“We don’t believe, even at 20 parts per trillion, it’s a health emergency,” Doll said. “Our view is that the water is safe to drink for students at schools, for people in their homes, people in nursing homes,” he said.
But he urged residents to seek advice from health care professionals if they have specific concerns like whether it’s safe for infants or the immunocompromised to drink tap water.
Tapping other sources not practical
Doll also dismissed a suggestion that the company should rely more heavily on taking water from cleaner surface sources rather than the groundwater that’s the source of the PFOA contamination. Taking water from a surface source like a river would require bigger pipelines than the company has, and building new lines would be expensive and time-consuming, he said.
In its statements last week, the investor-owned Middlesex Water called the new PFOA limit “extraordinarily stringent” and said it was required to inform the public about the exceedance in language that was specified by the DEP. Because of that requirement, the company said it was not initially able to explain the finding to the public, and that had fed public anxiety while contributing to a delay of about six weeks between receiving the test results and publication of the letter.
Middlesex Water has since posted statements on its website going into more detail about the PFOA reading. In a letter handed to residents at Monday’s meeting, the company said it’s not the source of the contaminant but now has to pay to clean it up. The company is suing the 3M company in federal court to recover those costs.
“Drinking water systems like ours are not producers or users of PFOA,” the company said. “Instead, they are potential receivers of these chemical compounds used by manufacturers and consumers. As a result, we must now implement costly solutions to remediate PFOA from our groundwater supplies.”
The DEP did not respond to the company’s criticism of its regulations but said it works with water providers to minimize exposure to any excess level of the family of PFAS chemicals —formally known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — until a permanent solution is found, and to seek compensation from the makers or distributors of the chemical for the cost of cleanup.
“In the interim, consumers can minimize exposure themselves by using a water filter that is certified to reduce levels of PFAS in drinking water, or to use bottled water,” the DEP said in a statement.
PFOA is one of three chemicals from the PFAS family that has been regulated by the DEP over the last seven years because of growing concerns about their links to serious health conditions including some cancers, low birth weights, and elevated cholesterol. The substances, known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment, remain unregulated by the federal government although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is now accelerating the process of setting enforceable national standards for PFOA and PFOS.
The man-made chemicals have been used since the 1940s in many products including non-stick cookware, flame-resistant fabrics, and firefighting foam — the source of widespread groundwater contamination on and around military bases nationwide. Amid rising health concerns, major U.S. manufacturers agreed in the mid-2000s to phase out their use but they remain present in products including some food packaging. Scientists say the chemicals are detectable in the blood of virtually every American.
Barbara Catterall, a retiree who lives in Edison, said she has looked into installing filtration systems since receiving the note from Middlesex but has found that some cost thousands and require installation and maintenance, while others get negative reviews online.
For now, Catterall, 76, is buying bottled water for $1 a gallon. “I am at a standstill as this is so complicated and beyond my control,” she said.
At Monday’s meeting, a Metuchen resident said she was “privileged” to be able to afford to pay $300 for a filter “because I have a 2-year-old and a 7-year-old and I’m not taking any chances.” But she said low-income families and seniors may not be able to afford to buy such devices.
“We know that you did not put the chemicals in the water,” the resident said, addressing Doll. “But we did rely on you for what we perceive as safe drinking water.”