Major New Jersey water system fighting to stop lead contamination

The Passaic Valley Water Commission provides water to more than 300,000 consumers throughout Passaic, Bergen, Essex, Hudson and Morris counties in New Jersey.

PIX11 spent hours touring their treatment plant.

“We are completely surrounded by water now,” said Joseph Bella, PVWC’s executive director, as we walked through a tunnel with 90 million gallons of water flowing around us.

In 2015, the system posted a lead water level of 17 parts per billion. The Environmental Protection Agency flags water systems when they exceed 15 parts per billion.

“We know that no lead is good lead,” Bella said. “We should be doing everything we can to minimize that lead, so that is why we’re trying to do this."

Bella said the utility fielded complaints when they announced a plan to take their water reservoirs indoors. They want to replace them with big covered tanks in order to keep sunlight, birds, bugs, rain and bacteria out of the drinking water.

With the water exposed to the elements, they cannot add a key chemical, called phosphates, to treat the water for corrosion control. Corrosive water can eat away at lead pipes and cause fragments of the metal to break off and flow right into your cup.

Bella said they’re probably looking at a timeline of 4 to 5 years before the tanks will be built and they can start adding phosphates.

“Lead in your drinking water will go down tremendously. And thats the important thing, to reduce
that risk exposure," he said.

If they added phosphates to the reservoirs right now, it would act as a fertilizer and cause bacteria to multiply.

"This would be pea-soup green,” Bella said pointing out over the water.

Some homes in the PVWC system still get their water through old lead service lines. PIX11 watched workers cut one out of the ground in Paterson, N.J.

“Since the '70s, we’ve been doing it. We’ve gotten over 35,000 of them,” said Bella, adding that they have less than 1,000 lead service lines left to remove.

They plan to be rid of all of them within 2 years.

"We’re doing everything right, we’ve just got to add the phosphates,” he said.

On Wednesday, PIX11 will be taking a closer look at pending federal legislation aimed at fighting water contamination.