DEP Officials Tell Residents South Orange Water OK to Drink
Wednesday, March 20, 2013 • 11:22am
SOUTH ORANGE, NJ – The risk of developing medical problems due to drinking the water in South Orange is “very, very low,” according to a representative of the state Department of Environmental Protection at the town hall meeting on Tuesday night.
Karen M. Fell, the DEP’s acting assistant director of the Water Systems Operations Element, said the maximum contaminate level, or MCL, for trichloroethylene , abbreviated as PCE, in New Jersey was set at a very conservative level – one part per billion. If the amount of PCE in water slightly exceeds that level, is no cause for concern, according to Fell.
Fell said the levels in the village fluctuate from being a little over the MCL to just a bit under it. In fact, she said, that the federal MCL is five parts per billion, meaning people in other states could be drinking water more contaminated than in South Orange.
“I know it’s easy to get upset about it because it’s hard to understand, but (the MCL) is set at a really cautious level,” Fell said.
To illustrate the fact that the village’s water was safe, Fell said she herself was drinking it during the meeting. But resident Tom Kelly pointed out “you’re drinking it for only 20 minutes, we’re drinking it for like 20 years.”
The meeting was held to reassure and inform residents about the water situation in South Orange following the indictment of two East Orange Water Commission EOWC executives for allegedly manipulating test results to downplay the level of PCE in the water supply. Fell was joined by Matt Maffei, also of the DEP, and village counsel Steven Rother to answer questions.
At the start of the meeting, Rother instructed residents not to ask about the village’s ongoing litigation against its water supplier, since the village cannot discuss current legal proceedings.
Fell said the source of the PCE has not been discovered, but she was not concerned by that because the levels of the industrial solvent in the water are relatively low. She said the important thing was that the water is treated.
“Whether the source is found or not found, treatment’s going to be put on, and the levels are going to be brought down to a nondetectable level,” Fell said.
On March 1, South Orange announced that the EOWC had agreed to install filtration and purification systems to remove contaminants from its wells as part of the village’s lawsuit against it. However, when Trustee Janine Bauer asked when the systems would be applied, Rother said it would be when the EOWC received DEP approval. Fell said the DEP could work with the EOWC on certain approvals, but she couldn’t give an exact date for the installation because a lot of it depends on engineering issues.
Though the meeting was meant to reassure residents, some were still not convinced of their water’s safety. One resident said she hasn’t been able to drink her water in the 10 years she’s lived in South Orange, and she still doesn’t trust it even after hearing what the experts had to say.
Resident Megan Berry recalled being “flat on my back sick” shortly after moving to South Orange. With her kidneys starting to fail, Barry said she stopped drinking the water and made a full recovery. She said the village should come together to take a stand on the water issue.
“I understand we’re working within the realms of causation, not just correlation, but there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that as a community we’re going to have to find a way to pull it all together and reckon with it,” Berry said to applause from the audience.
Rother said all updates on South Orange’s water situation will be posted on the village’s website.
The reporter is participating in a hyperlocal journalism partnership between The Alternative Press and Seton Hall University's Department of Communication & The Arts.