Are Trenton residents caught in the middle of a water crisis?
Jevoa Lin, a Trenton resident, doesn’t drink the water from his sink, but he is concerned about using the water for other things, like washing dishes or clothes. After a water boil advisory, he felt disgusted about having to shower in the water. “The whole point of taking a shower is to be clean, but the pipe is contaminated,” Lin said.
These problems with water quality have led consumers in Mercer County serviced by Trenton Water Works (TWW) to be concerned and leave negative, low-rating reviews on Google at one and a half stars about the quality of Trenton Water Works. Some of these comments are about the poor water quality, the lack of quality customer service and long wait times.
In the blazing trail of the disaster of TWW lies water contaminated with Legionella bacteria, lead exposure, and harmful chemicals. The state was asked to take over oversight of TWW operations in October of 2022, yet some are wondering about the causes of these failures, from TWW to Trenton’s City Council and the mayor’s office. These years of continuous errors included staffing, maintenance and funding issues, which the mayor blamed on the Trenton City Council. Trenton’s crisis in their water quality comes from an ineffective government unable to operate TWW to meet their water quality goals and mandates from the state, even though the water is reportedly now safe to drink.
TWW serves five municipalities: Trenton, Ewing, Hopewell, Hamilton, and Lawrence, drawing water from the Delaware River to over 200,000 people, according to Trenton’s website.
TWW’s most prevalent blemishes from the State’s investigation right before taking over operational oversight included: failing to protect their water source, not filling important staffing positions, failing to do maintenance on important machinery and failing to monitor water quality at the State’s standards. The state was also “disturbed” by the actions of the previoius council to not finance necessary resolutions to improve TWW, according to the NJDEP inspection report.
Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora has said that a major cause of the state’s need to take over has been continuous denials from the Trenton City Council to act in good faith to approve proposals to help fix the major issues, which was also a concern of the state.
“I wholeheartedly agree that if the Trenton City Council had done their job, we would not find ourselves in this position,” said Mayor Gusciora in a statement in September of last year referring to the state’s report on TWW. This came after the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection sent a letter in Sept. 2022 entailing the failures of TWW to Mayor Gusciora and Trenton City Council.
According to the Trentonian, Joseph Harrison admitted this was the “worst governing body in Trenton’s history.” He is the only member of the previous 2018 council who was reelected.
Harrison said to the Trentonian, “All these things the community wanted addressed seemed to have been on the backburner to our personal drama. It’s embarrassing. Every meeting turns into a yelling match.”
The previously elected council, which Harrison was a part of, rejected an $18 million dollar funding request from TWW twice in late 2019, voted “no” in Aug. 2021 on a $15 million dollar project to help the lead pipe replacement program, and later in that same month rejected $83 million in bonds. The state became concerned over the ability of the city to subsidize and execute actions to improve TWW because of the council’s refusal to vote for these proposals, according to the inspection report.
After the 2019 rejection of funding, Mayor Gusciora told NJ Advance Media that the council was more concerned with politics over health policies and it would lead to “DEP and the surrounding communities to take up arms against the city.”
The next step for many policymakers is to keep residents in the know about their drinking water. A bill sponsored by senators Linda Greenstein (D-Mercer/Middlesex) and Bob Smith (D-Middlesex/Somerset) requires public water systems and landlords to give notice to customers about elevated levels of perfluoroalkyl or polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS), otherwise known as “forever chemicals,” in their drinking water within thirty days of finding the contamination. Additionally, the bill requires the DEP to update its website with an educational program that warns residents about the health impacts of elevated levels of PFASs.
Senator Greenstein told the New Jersey Senate Democrats that families deserve to know if the water is safe or not to reduce their exposure to harmful chemicals.
Similarly, A bill introduced on October 6, 2022, two years after the Attorney General and DEP filed a lawsuit against TWW, establishes the Mercer Regional Water Services Commission as an overseeing agency over certain TWW operations. The purpose of this is to ensure that TWW is properly and effectively providing water.
Although there are a number of bills and policies in the works, some residents can’t see much change even after the State’s control over TWW operations. Jonathan Ruiz, a Trenton resident for most of his life, states he has not seen a difference, “at least not enough where you see a noticeable change.”
What NJDEP is Doing Now
The state is now working to bring into line the staffing and maintenance concerns to make sure that the water quality will be consistent over the years. Currently, the water is safe to drink, and the state wants to make sure it will stay that way in the coming years by repairing the foundational mistakes in TWW like staffing and maintenance, according to NJDEP.
The state is sending people to monitor and advise on the best course of action for TWW to take in regard to technical and managerial aspects.
There have been staffing changes in TWW—a new director has been appointed—Sean Semple.
According to the DEP, the water quality from samples submitted in Oct. of last year by TWW was up to par. Their main goal in taking over operational oversight remains: to help improve their operations and maintenance, as well as to ensure that public health goals would be met in the future.
In an interview, Commissioner Shawn M. LaTourette from the NJ DEP said, “I believe that some communities in this state are overlooked compared to others, but the government has been trying to pay attention to the underserved communities to make sure they have clean drinking water, every citizen should have easy access to something as essential as water.”
LaTourette is confident in the state’s ability to get information regarding environmental problems to all communities.
“I don’t have any concerns. When an environmental threat is known, the state tries their best to make it known to the public as fast as possible,” said LaTourette.
The City’s Previous Warnings
In 2020, former Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal and former DEP Commissioner Catherine R. McCabe filed a lawsuit against TWW and the city of Trenton due to the failures of both the water provider and the city to follow the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Attorney General Grewal states in the NJDEP press release of the lawsuit, that they demand TWW to get up to par in their expectations to replace lead service lines, comply with environmental laws, and be held to the highest standards.
The lawsuit outlines ways they have been non-compliant.
TWW failed to take the measures needed to protect the water supply. The DEP told them they needed to cover the water reservoir in order to stop contaminants from entering the water. They were originally supposed to finish the construction on the cover by 2009. They missed deadlines and extended deadlines. According to the press release, TWW asked for the project to be dropped so they could come up with a different solution, but did not send in a plan for what they wanted to do.
The state government has warned TWW about damaging actions of the Trenton City Council that included them making Trenton non-compliant with its loans from the Water Bank Program in July 2022.
The state warned that this noncompliance would prevent them from receiving the necessary revenue to rectify many issues. This noncompliance included the refusal of the council to submit a budget for 2022 and their failure to approve plans to repay the loans. The city of Trenton responded by making a payment plan but had yet to submit a budget by Aug. 16.
A month later in Sept. the DEP released the findings from their latest inspection report, which detailed TWW’s failure to comply with state laws and regulations and gave them a deadline to respond to all claims and provide explanations for the concerns and led the state to send the previously mentioned letter to the city as a last warning.
These failures included not fixing machinery during their reported schedule, not taking the necessary steps to protect the water source, not reducing risks, fluctuations in water quality in the machines and not updating their operation and maintenance manual.
TWW’s former director Mark Lavenberg responded to the letter from the state and claimed that this letter was outdated and unnecessary because many of the issues stressed in the lawsuit were in the process, or have been resolved. But this response did not do much to change the opinion of the state.
This continuous failure to comply with regulations and requests from DEP ultimately led to the state losing faith in TWW to get their act together. In 2022, after the Trenton City Council continued to be a hurdle for TWW to get funding, the state chose to oversee operations after more than a decade-long fight on Oct. 12.
How are Residents Coping with this Governmental Failure?
Anna Lin, Jevoa’s sister, says occasionally the water will have “brown particles” in it. She said that it doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it happens in the morning. “We have to keep the water running until there are no brown particles,” she explained. “Then we can safely drink it.”
Anna Lin believes that there should be more notice and information about the water.
“I want them to put more information out there,” she said. “Like, why is it unsafe? I want more information. We’re not getting it.”
Anna Lin did not know about the oversight of TWW by the state, nor did she know about some of the more recent problems with the water—the recent cases of Legionnaires’ disease.
Ruiz states that he does not drink tap water under any circumstances after receiving some letters from the city to avoid the water or attempt to boil it.
Ruiz believes residents are not informed because the issue is not talked about outside of water advisories sent to homes. “I just think a lot of problems they should talk about don’t get talked about enough,” said Ruiz. Other residents feel similarly.
East Trenton Collaborative is a group of people from New Jersey Community Capital and Urban Promise Trenton working with Trenton residents to improve the community each day. The company works to provide residents with resources and updated information about how TWW and the city itself are working to help them during this time.
Their own Lead Service Replacement Program works to ensure that residents have access to funding to replace contaminated pipelines, attempting to create a lead-free Trenton.
Jeremiah Snow-Smith, a Trenton resident and an employee of the East Trenton Collaborative, was optimistic about the efforts of the organization.
“I help manage the kids, make sure they’re doing alright,” he said in an interview. “We tell them about the water sometimes, how it’s bad. Some of them understand, some of them are still young and still trying to get it into their head.”
While Snow-Smith’s optimistic about the work that the East Trenton Collaborative has been doing, he says that their efforts alone will not fix the water problems that Trenton is facing.
“It’s definitely still a long way to go,” he said. “And it’s not just gonna take one organization to try to get the water back to where it’s supposed to be. It’s gonna take more than one tribe.”
Unsafe Water and Legionnaires’ Disease
Legionnaires’ disease, a rare but potentially fatal form of pneumonia, was linked to contaminated water from Trenton Water Works (TWW). Between Oct. 2022 and March 2023, seven recent cases of Legionnaires’ disease were reported by Mercer County residents; all cases were within the range of households that were served by TWW, according to Trenton’s website.
This is not the first time that Legionnaires’ disease was connected to the water from TWW. According to NJ.gov, four individuals contracted Legionnaires’ disease between Dec. 2021 and Aug. 2022, one of whom died. The four individuals were residents of Hamilton Township and were served by TWW.
Legionnaires’ disease is a potentially fatal type of pneumonia, that is spread through water getting into the lungs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Protection. It presents with similar symptoms to pneumonia, cough, fever and others.
The Department of Health advised residents being served by TWW to follow several precautionary measures, such as cleaning shower heads and conducting flushing of pipes, to prevent the spread of Legionella, the bacteria linked to these outbreaks that were found in the water supplied by TWW.
“I want to reassure our customers, the general public, government officials and stakeholders that TWW is working diligently and cooperatively with state and local officials and sharing sample and testing data to manage Legionella in the TWW system,” said Mayor Gusciora in a statement.
The Hamilton Township Division of Health and the New Jersey Department of Health solicited 20 Hamilton Township residents voluntarily to have their houses tested for Legionella.
Legionella was found in water samples obtained from more than half of the households served by TWW, including samples of cold water entering homes, according to a press release from the New Jersey Department of Health. Legionella may invade buildings and households after obtaining treated drinking water. However, health officials are concerned about the number of households in TWW service regions that have Legionella. There is fear that Legionella may be present in other buildings and households in the region, notably in places supplied by TWW in Hamilton Township.
A healthy individual exposed to Legionella is unlikely to become ill with Legionnaires’ disease. However, people over the age of 50, particularly smokers, and those with specific medical disorders, such as compromised immune systems, chronic lung illness, or other chronic health issues, are at a higher risk for Legionnaires’ disease, according to the NJDOH.
These recent cases of Legionnaires’ disease, and deaths, are the first to be announced and reported on since the NJDOH took oversight of TWW in October 2022.
Low-velocity pipe flushing was started in late April to increase chlorine levels and clear out the Legionella bacteria, though it is not yet clear how effective this measure will be in reducing the amount of Legionella present in the system, according to Trenton’s press release.
The water may have a slight chlorine smell for a while. They say that this is normal.
They will start utilizing robocalling to expand communications to consumers, including letting consumers know about the Low-Income Household Water Assistance Program (LIHWAP), which helps low-income families to avoid having their water service shut off.
Some residents say they haven’t seen much local news coverage of these cases. Trenton resident Jonathan Ruiz states, “I wouldn’t be surprised if something like that didn’t go on air,” when asked about these cases of Legionnaires’ disease in the news.
This article is the first in a series written by TCNJ student reporters Amber Nodes, Grace Ruthe, Delaney Smith, Jacob Fryc, as part of a class project on environmental justice issues affecting Trenton residents. You can reach the professor, Ambreen Ali, at firstname.lastname@example.org.