Government South Orange Towns

Update: Working to Assure Water Quality in South Orange

South Orange village is looking to make some changes regarding water supply and maintenance and operations.

As part of the process, officials are looking to update the public and solicit feedback at a meeting at 7:30 p.m. on September 15, on the main stage at SOPAC.

South Orange residents and officials have had serious concerns about water quality for years. In March 2011, the NJ Department of Environmental Protection cited South Orange’s water vendor East Orange Water Company for exceeding the allowable concentration of one volatile organic compound tetrachloroethylene (PCE), in drinking water distributed by EOWC.

The village responded by filing suit against EOWC for water quality and service issues.

Then, in February 2013, two top EOWC officials were charged with manipulating water test results. DEP officials visited South Orange in March 2013 to assure local officials and residents that EOWC water was at safe levels for all contaminants. Yesterday, one of the EWOC officials charged with manipulation plead guilty (the other is deceased).

In the years since 2011, South Orange has responded by continuing legal action against EOWC and by keeping a close eye on contamination levels — posting water quality testing and reports on the village website.

The Board of Trustees formed a working group to negotiate on behalf of the village regarding the water situation. The working group is currently made up of Village Administrator Barry Lewis, Village Counsel Steven Rother, and Trustees Howard Levison and Walter Clarke.

Recently, Village Green interviewed Trustee Walter Clarke for an update on the water situation.

Clarke reported that the legal conversations with East Orange Water are ongoing. The village has entered into an arbitration process but turnover at the top at EOWC has made that “a frustrating process.” After two top officials were indicted, said Clarke, a director, Michael Johnson, had been appointed to “right the ship”; however Johnson was hired away this spring and EOWC is in the process of hiring a new director.

Another recent development is some wrangling regarding the EOWC board of directors. Newly elected East Orange Mayor Lester Taylor asked for the resignation of all five board members when he took office this June.

Said Clarke, “That has made it difficult for us to hash out what we’re trying to hash out.”

As legal activity grinds slowly, the South Orange working group is moving ahead looking at alternative solutions once the village’s contract with EOWC expires at the end of 2016.

“It seems like a long time away,” said Clarke, “but because we are talking about water and infrastructure, it’s really not.”

A “frontrunner” for taking over as supplier to South Orange is NJ American Water. NJ American Water also supplies West Orange and Maplewood.

“One of the things you’re talking about is adjacency, having a direct pipeline,” said Clarke. “Otherwise you’re looking at ‘wheeling water’ — pumping water from another water provider but sending through a contiguous town’s pipeline to get to you.” Clarke said that this is a more expensive and wasteful option.

Another plus for NJ American is that it is regulated by BPU (the Board of Public Utilities).

“Our current contract with East Orange is a straight-up local agreement. They are not regulated by BPU.” Clarke noted that BPU regulation would be attractive going forward as you “look at cost and regulation issues.”

“I cannot see that EOWC rates would not have to rise to cover their problems. They only serve two towns. It’s really hard to imagine that that would be competitive.”

Clarke pointed out that there are two pieces to a water utility: one is supply; the other is operations and maintenance —”billing, fixing the pipes, pumps, ground infrastructure and the reservoirs.”

Clarke said, “We are looking at separate supply and maintenance operations as well. We could get supply from NJ American but have a separate maintenance and operations contract.”

Clarke said that while South Orange could directly award the supply contract, the maintenance and operations contract would need to go out to bid. “As far as operations and maintenance that would be a bidding process. For a supplier it’s a different deal. By statute, supply does not have to be bid out.”

Clarke feels strongly that EOWC’s chances of continuing as vendor are slim to none. Besides the potential cost increases, there is the issue of loss of trust: “I cannot in good conscience see continuing on with them. Both from a financial and a public trust perspective, it doesn’t make sense to me,” said Clarke.

Clarke noted that the village has also been tracking the water quality carefully.

“EOWC has been taking wells offline one by one, rehabilitating them and then putting them online.”

Clarke says public meetings will be an important part of the process going forward.

“We realize it’s been frustrating for people for a while. And for a while we were not able to talk about all the legal issues. But I think we are at a point where we can talk about the process and moving forward. We need to talk to the public.”

Clarke said that he has actually enjoyed some aspects of the process thus far.

“It’s a big learning curve. Also it’s kind of fascinating that it’s one of these things that is literally out of sight and out of mind unless it’s messing up on some level. The more I learn how complicated these systems are, the more I appreciate that water comes out when you turn on the faucet.”

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