Collum Addresses South Orange Water Contamination: ‘We Don’t Take This Lightly’

by The Village Green
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Correction: Per Village Administrator Barry Lewis, the water well test in question yielded a result of 58 ppt (parts per trillion) — well below the Federal EPA Public Health Advisory level of 400 ppt which is for short term exposure (defined as weeks to months) but did exceed the NJ DEP guideline amount of 40 ppt which is for chronic or lifetime exposure which is defined as 70 years. Village Green incorrectly reported that the test exceeded federal guidelines. The article has been corrected.

South Orange Village Administrator Barry Lewis provided further details on Monday night on how the township is handling the discovery of higher-than-state-guideline levels of one chemical in Well 17, which constitutes about 10 percent of the village’s water supply.

On Sunday, the township issued a press release explaining that a specific chemical, PFOA (which is in the family of PFCs), was found in levels exceeding the NJ Department of Environmental Protection’s guidelines in Well 17. PFOA is a “likely carcinogen,” according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The release explained that, since the well water is 10% of the supply and is mixed with other water, levels in residents’ water should be well below the federal guidelines.

However, on Monday night at the Board of Trustees meeting, Lewis underscored that the village is not taking the issue lightly and is being aggressive in follow up.

In response to suggestions by residents, Lewis explained that the village could not “just shut the well down” as that would cause a rise of water in the aquifer and flooding in basements in the neighborhood where the well is situated.

He assured residents that the village would be continually updating information on — including the outcome of a phone call with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection scheduled for Wednesday morning.

Lewis and Village President Sheena Collum also stated that the village would be hosting a public meeting on the situation in the very near future. A date for the meeting has not yet been determined.

Lewis said that, since the village had been made aware of the PFOAs last week, staff had done “considerable research” and were continuing to follow up. Lewis noted that the chemical is present in products like teflon and in microwave popcorn bags and has been “coming into the limelight” of federal scrutiny in the last ten years.

Lewis said that the village is reaching out to “the one lab” in the country that does PFOA testing and will be retesting the well and the entire water supply. The town has also reached out to a former employee with knowledge of the water system in South Orange.

“We are evaluating methods to determine at what points that blending occurs to ascertain what actually is being delivered to the end consumer,” said Lewis. “We have confidence that all the town is diluted sufficiently…. The point being we are still learning a lot. We are committed to finding out as much as we can.”

Lewis also said, “We recognized that South Orange is particularly sensitive to water issues given history with EOWC.” (Read more about EOWC and water contamination in South Orange here.)

Lewis reported that the danger of PFCs and PFOA is “all by ingestion” and recommended that if residents “remain concerned … bathing is not an issue but … use bottled water for drinking and cooking.”

Collum noted that if the town found that residents were truly in danger, the town would do all in its power to notify residents immediately: “We would knock on people’s doors. We don’t take this lightly.”

Lewis also noted that the town is moving forward with its new water supplier NJ American Water and new water utility management vendor, with the switch to take place on Jan. 1, 2017. The Trustees discussed actions earlier in the meeting to help blaze the path to improving the town’s water infrastructure in light of the change.

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