SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — A likely carcinogen was detected a few months ago in 12 New Jersey water systems at rates above the state’s guidance level, according to a list compiled by the Department of Environmental Protection, and South Orange’s Well No. 17 is among those which — at one point or another, since testing started in 2007 — have carried an oversupply of perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA. Since then, however, the village has been busy learning what they can about PFOA and identifying possible solutions.
Not much is known about PFOA, or what causes it to seep into water supplies at a higher rate than usual. State officials have said it’s virtually impossible to know why the water in South Orange’s Well No. 17 was found to have 58 parts per billion of PFOA in 2015, above the state’s guidance level of 40 ppb.
South Orange’s water is currently provided by the East Orange Water Commission, though that relationship will come to a close at the end of the year, when the contract expires and the village switches to New Jersey American Water. The decision to go with NJAW came long before the recent discovery of PFOA in South Orange’s water; not only has tetrachloroethylene been found in Well No. 17, but the EOWC has also been mired in corruption scandals.
As a first step in resolving this issue, South Orange arranged for additional sampling and laboratory testing of water from Well No. 17 and from other areas in the village. According to a release from the village, the points chosen were the closest points above and below the point at which the Well No. 17 water is introduced into the system; two additional points further downstream from the first two chosen points; and the last sample came from the Seton Hall University campus.
According to village Administrator Barry Lewis Jr., the village contracted Eurofins to conduct the tests. Eurofins is the laboratory approved by the NJDEP and which was used by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2014 and 2015 to conduct nationwide testing of water systems as part of EPA protocol.
While all six tests came in under the federal EPA guidance level of 400 ppb — 100 times the NJDEP guidance level — the Well No. 17 water test remains at a higher level than is desirable. Although the Well No. 17 water tested at 75 ppb, which is nearly double the NJDEP guidance level, all the other tests were well below the NJDEP’s 40 ppb guidance level. The Farrell Field hydrant tested at 10 ppb, the South Mountain School at 10 ppb, 324 Valley St. at 26 ppb, 454 Valley St. at 29 ppb and the SHU campus at 32 ppb.
Some factories and industrial plants release PFOA into the environment, but it can also be found in carpets, clothing and cookware; research on PFOA is relatively new. PFOA is part of a family of perfluorinated chemicals, or PFCs, which have been linked to cancer and developmental problems in humans. Despite this, the NJDEP has stated that at the state’s guidance level it would take a very long time — and some bad luck — to contract cancer from drinking the local water supply.
Using NJDEP’s guideline, residents in a town like South Orange aren’t likely to see any health hazards resulting from PFOA. In a municipality of 30,000 people, that means someone might contract cancer from the local water supply, on average, once every several thousand years, if the water they are drinking is well above the state’s standard rate of 40 ppb.
But while Well No. 17’s water is above 40 ppb, South Orange’s drinking water supply is not composed solely of water from Well No. 17. Well No. 17’s water only accounts for approximately 10 percent of the village’s water and is mixed in the system with the other 90 percent, which is below the state guidance level. Due to this dilution, the actual amount of PFOA in a resident’s drinking water is much lower than the state guidance level.
According to the village, additional testing has been arranged and the village will continue to monitor the PFOA levels pending a permanent solution. According to the release, the village has commissioned its water engineer to complete a hydraulic system analysis to confirm the directional flow, concentration and exact blending into the water system of Well No. 17’s water. The village is also looking into the option of reducing the amount of water coming from Well No. 17, as well as instituting interim and permanent granular activated charcoal filtration systems.
“Assuming a permanent solution to the PFOA issue can be achieved, the plan would be to continue to use Well No. 17 water to partially supplement the majority supply, which will be coming from NJAW instead of EOWC as of Jan. 1, 2017,” Lewis told the News-Record.
While residents may remember that Well No. 17 was in the news a few years ago as having a volatile organic compound level above state standards, it is important to remember that Well No. 17 did not originate the VOC problem. According to Lewis, the well has not had any VOC problems since a stripper was installed approximately 20 years ago; the VOCs flowing out of the well originated from the EOWC, not the South Orange system.
“Both the village and EOWC continue to test for VOCs,” Lewis said. “There have been no exceedances.”
Correction: This article initially referred to Well No. 17 as the Meadowbrook Well. This is incorrect. This issue has been corrected.