Attorney general, NJDEP file suit against City of Trenton for failing to protect the water system that serves five municipalities in Mercer County

The state has filed a lawsuit against the City of Trenton and the Trenton Water Works to force them to take actions to protect and strengthen the city’s water system, including actions to reduce the risk of lead and pathogens in the drinking water. 

The Trenton Water Works supplies about 29 million gallons of drinking water per day to more than 200,000 people, including residents of Trenton, Ewing, Hamilton, Hopewell, and Lawrence. Over the past decade, the city has agreed over and over to cure its many failures to comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act. State officials said the city agreed to replace thousands of lead service lines and cover a finished water reservoir to comply with state and federal law and minimize public health risks. State officials said the Trenton Water Works has missed many critical deadlines, has not met its obligations to replace a significant portion of lead service lines, has failed to protect the open, 78-million-gallon reservoir of treated water from contamination and reduce the risk of pathogens in the water supply, and has failed to satisfy a series of other operations and maintenance obligations. Yet on May 7, the Trenton City Council rejected a Trenton Water Works request for millions of dollars to meet those legal obligations, officials said.

“After years of mismanagement, and after the Trenton City Council recently failed to take necessary steps to address the serious shortcomings in the city’s water system, the state was left with no choice but to file this suit,” said Attorney General Gurbir Grewal. “Our lawsuit demands that the Trenton Water Works meet its obligations to reduce the risk of lead exposure by replacing lead service lines, and to comply with a range of other environmental laws that go directly to the health of the public and especially of Trenton’s children. New Jersey’s public water systems must be held to the highest standards and must live up to their environmental and public health obligations.” 

Lead can occur in drinking water when lead service lines within water distribution systems and household plumbing corrode. Wherever the lead levels exceed 15 parts per billion for a sufficient number of samples from a single water system, the system has experienced an “action level exceedance” and federal law requires water systems to implement techniques to minimize the risk and to replace a percentage of its lead service lines. According to the lawsuit filed against the city, the Trenton Water Works experienced lead-related action level exceedance events during three monitoring periods in 2017 and 2018. The Trenton Water Works was required to replace seven percent of its lead service lines within a year of its first action level exceedance but did not meet that first deadline. The Trenton Water Works then committed to replacing seven percent of its lead lines – over 2,500 lines – by December 31 of 2019. The city missed that deadline and will miss an upcoming deadline in July to replace an additional seven percent of its lead lines, totaling 14% of its lines. To date, it has replaced only 828 of its lines, or roughly two percent. 

“In light of the Trenton City Council’s recent refusal to adequately fund drinking water system improvements, it has become all the more clear that the Trenton Water Works will not meet its obligations under the Safe Drinking Water Act and DEP’s orders,” said Department of Environmental ProtectionCommissioner Catherine R. McCabe.”The DEP has been left no choice but to take legal action, and we have confidence that Attorney General Grewal and his team will help us bring swift relief to the people of Trenton and the communities who rely on the Trenton Water Works for their drinking water.”

State officials said as a result of the city’s failure to meet its agreed-upon obligation to replace many aged and corroding lead service lines, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has been forced to seek the court’s intervention. The lawsuit claims that legal action seeking a court order is required because the city has not taken all necessary steps to “mitigate the risk of potential lead contamination in drinking water.” The lawsuit also seeks immediate relief from the court. 

In addition to demanding that the Trenton Water Works replace sufficient lead service lines, the lawsuit addresses failures to reduce the risk of contamination in its reservoir, as well as the inability of the Trenton Water Works to comply with other maintenance and operational requirements. The Trenton Water Works maintains a seven-acre reserve reservoir that contains millions of gallons of usable, treated water, and provides drinking water to consumers when the system is unable to meet demands. Because the reservoir is uncovered, it is subject to contamination from the elements and from birds or other animals that officials say could introduce pathogens into the water supply. 

According to the lawsuit filed Monday, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection ordered the installation of a floating cover to protect the reservoir from contamination more than a decade ago, and it ordered the Trenton Water Works to complete the cover project by 2009. According to the lawsuit, the city did not comply with the order, and that it missed two extended deadlines in the process. As a result, in 2018, the city and the state agreed to extend the deadline for cover installation until 2023, with an added requirement that Trenton fulfilled a number of interim milestones in 2018 and 2019 to ensure the installation of the cover by the deadline. According to the lawsuit, the city has not completed those steps in a timely manner and now wants to abandon the cover project in lieu of an alternative approach – a series of above ground storage tanks to prevent the contamination of its reserve water supply.

State officials said Trenton has not formally requested the approval of the storage tank project, which is projected to cost tens of millions of dollars. The city has also not provided the state with a schedule for completion, or any indication of how it intends to fund the project. According to the lawsuit, the city’s agreement with the state also required the Trenton Water Works to meet a series of operations and maintenance requirements that the city has repeatedly failed to do. Last month, the Trenton City Council rejected a request from the Trenton Water Works for more than $83 million in bonds, which included $50 million for the protection of the water in the system. State officials said the funding was also necessary to ensure that other maintenance and operations obligations were completed.

One Comment

  1. Wow. So what happens when Trenton says they’ll fix it but don’t have the money. They have shown themselves to be irresponsible with any prior funding, no? How does the water system get fixed?

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