The Most Fundamental Way to Put Residents First: Prioritize CLean Public Water

Collingswood’s water system is at a tipping point. Our local government is scrambling to meet new state regulations, having put other expenditures above our community’s water. Recent Commissioners meetings have featured emergency shared water services with Camden, emergency spending to rent carbon filters, and opaque answers about the new water treatment plant our town will soon need. As a resident and parent, safe water for Collingswood is a priority of mine.

Beginning in the first calendar quarter of 2021, all NJ public community water systems need to meet standards to reduce PFOA, PFOS and PFNA. These chemicals pose a threat as potential carcinogens. Infants and children are particularly sensitive to the impact of PFOA and PFOS. I’m glad our state has developed standards for these chemicals. Now we need a local government that shares these priorities and can keep pace.

The state provided municipalities two years of lead time in getting ready for these new regulations. Standards were announced in 2020. In 2019, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) outlined requirements,monitoring and enforcement. Public water systems that do not meet the standards for contamination will be forced to remediate.

Though Collingswood’s water is below the Maximum Contamination Level (MCL), our water does contain contaminants. The NJDEP has previously rated our water as highly susceptible to contamination by volatile organic compounds and inorganics such as lead and copper. The Environmental Working Group lists seven contaminants in the Collingswood water system that exceed their guidelines. In 2017, water in our schools tested too high for lead, prompting remediation

These new NJDEP water standards are even more exacting. As a stopgap measure, the Borough is renting a carbon filter system. Ultimately, a new water treatment facility will be needed, a capital project the Retrospect has estimated at costing around $7 million. When I asked the Mayor for information about the cost and timeline for the new water treatment facility our community will need, I was told “you’ll know when we know.” 

In 2019, the Borough borrowed $10 million for the public safety building. According to Retrospect reporting, $11,750,008 of that $12 million has already been spent. Will the Borough have to borrow more money to finish the project? Our current debt service is triple that of neighboring towns. And that’s before grappling with the cost of a new water treatment plant.

Why was constructing a public safety building at its current cost and size prioritized over safeguarding the community’s water? Details outside of our town suggest answers. In 2018, Jim Maley was hired as redevelopment counsel in Cape May where he worked to broker a deal for a USA Architects designed public safety building. When neighboring towns have found themselves unable to pay for system repairs, they’ve sold their water to American Water. Phillip Norcross represents American Water via his lobbying firm, Optimus Partners. Jim Maley previously worked at Philip Norcross’s firm, Parker McCay as redevelopment consultant and eminent domain attorney.

I don’t want to see Collingswood grapple with the double bind that towns like Moorestown have found themselves–residents struggling with high taxes and compromised water. And water privatization  can lead to rate hikes, increased shut-offs and reduced water quality. 

Residents deserve transparency, especially on issues that impact their health. The public needs to be in the know about how their money is being spent and needs to have a say. It is the job of local government to protect the well-being of the community they serve. Prioritizing safe water is one impactful way to do that.

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