HAMMONTON — After two years of reports of pollution found in one municipal well after another, residents may understandably dread turning on their faucets.
While measures are being taken to mitigate the wells, some problems remain.
A new $1.7 million water filtration system that removes naturally occurring radium goes online this week, enabling two wells to reopen after more than a year off-line. That will bring the number of working wells serving the town to three out of five hooked up to its municipal water supply.
Wells No. 1 and 3, the town’s oldest, are on Lincoln Avenue; Well No. 4 is at Plymouth and Main roads; and Wells No. 5 and 7 are on 14th Street. Wells No. 2 and 6 are not hooked up to the water supply.
Residents remain cautious.
Dawn Bova, an 11-year resident of Grape Street and mother of three, said she uses city water for cooking, but often drinks bottled water. Judy Tomasello O’Neil installed a water cooler in her 11th Street home.
“I always had city water, but I don’t know if I feel confident,” said O’Neil, “and I love Hammonton.”
A self-described health fanatic, O’Neil said she drinks a lot of water. Notices sent out by the city about the potential health risks of radionuclides, such as gross alpha and radium, and a volatile organic compound called ethylene dibromide, or EDB, scared her. Both are potential cancer-causing agents. EDB, even in small doses, over time can damage the stomach, liver, reproductive system and kidneys.
“It’s just my opinion, but I’m not drinking it,” she said, adding she may reconsider once the new treatment system is running for a while. She is in the habit of buying bottled water now, she said.
Radium contamination was found in Well No. 4, which was shut down after last summer, as it had been in Wells No. 5 and 7, which were shut down in September 2011. Radium contamination, which occurs naturally in rocks and dissolves easily into South Jersey’s acidic water, has been a problem for many water systems in the region.
Well No. 1 was found to be contaminated with EDB last fall. An emergency treatment system was installed Dec. 6. EDB is also expected to become a problem in nearby Well No. 3, which has been shut down.
EDB was used as an additive in leaded gas and used to be in pesticides, utility superintendent Anthony DeCicco said. Well No. 4 has long had an EDB problem and requires additional treatment for EDB and radium. EDB most likely leached into the ground from leaking gasoline tanks or farm runoff, DeCicco said.
The town has been using water from just Well No. 1 for several months, and its overuse may be responsible for the EDB pollution showing up there for the first time last fall, DeCicco said.
“It was pulling water from a broader and broader area,” DeCicco said.
Officials such as Mayor Steve DiDonato stress that the state Department of Environmental Protection monitors drinking water wells constantly. Wells are either shut down or treated if the rolling average for pollutants exceeds health limits over four quarters. So no one was drinking polluted water for very long, they say.
As the town was dealing with pollution in its wells, it had to spend $3.2 million to extend municipal water to residents in the agricultural northwestern part of town, because mercury and volatile organic compounds were found in private wells. Houses in that section are dotted among blueberry and produce fields and orchards. Runoff of farm chemicals over decades is a likely culprit.
Nort Davis, of Pine Avenue in that section, said he recently paid about $2,000 to hook into municipal water, which will be much more expensive than his well with its own filtering system. But he had no choice, because his well exceeded allowable contaminants set by the state.
He asked the town to get permission from the DEP for homeowners to keep their wells for irrigation only, but the state would not allow that, he said. He’s waiting now for his well to be capped.
He expects to irrigate his large property far less often, he said.
“My wife says, ‘You think about it every time you turn on the spigot now,’” Davis said. “We didn’t think about it before.”
The cost of removing pollutants from town wells, and extending the municipal system to homes with polluted private wells, caused the first water-rate increase in the town since 1981, officials said.
Hammonton has raised basic municipal water rates by 27 percent, from $150 a year for those using minimal amounts, to $190, Councilman Mickey Pullia said. About 3,800 of the town’s 6,100 hookups use the municipal system. The rest use private wells. Farms run their own water systems, which are also monitored by the state.
Excess-use rates are up by a higher percentage and will affect most residents. Jerry Barberio, town business administrator and Public Works manager, said his family’s bill went from $69 to $115 per quarter, up almost 67 percent.
The DEP had demanded the town raise charges for excess water use, and start a public education program, as a condition of bringing residents with polluted private wells into the system.
The state was concerned about Hammonton’s summertime use of water, said Katie Barnett, principal environmental specialist with water resource management at the DEP.
Per-person water use per day in Hammonton in 2010 was 93 gallons in winter, which is above the state average of 80 gallons a day, Barnett said. But it spiked to 192 gallons per person per day in summer, she said.
Towns of a similar size and type generally increase their per capita use by about 60 gallons a day in summer, she said.
She said it’s the DEP’s responsibility to manage aquifers for the benefit of all people in New Jersey.
“Hammonton is in an area of concern for us. It’s the Pinelands, and also there are certain aquifers that are a little bit more stressed than others,” she said. “A lot of people are diverting water from the same aquifer, and water is not an infinite resource.”
Some of the costs of addressing the pollution will be shared by the state. The $1.7 million for the filtering system in Wells No. 5 and 7 will be covered in part by a grant from the New Jersey Environmental Infrastructure Trust — in part by 0 percent loans — and a maximum of 40 percent will be covered by a market-rate loan.
The $3.2 million to expand the municipal system into the northwest part of town is expected to be covered by a state grant of about $770,000, and special loans, with town taxpayers expected to pick up about $1.8 million, DiDonato said.
Pullia said final figures won’t be known until the project closeout in the spring, then the state must get back to the town about the funding. That could take another 90 days after closeout, Pullia said.
The DEP has indicated its spill fund probably will pay the full $168,000 for emergency installation of a carbon filtration treatment unit for EDB on Well No. 1 last December, Pullia said. But the $5,000 monthly rental cost of the units will be the town’s responsibility.
And Well No. 4, which has been off since September, still has to have its radium and EDB problems addressed. DeCicco said the town is hoping to go to bid soon on that project.
“The issue dominated every council meeting (last) spring and summer,” Pullia said. “Hopefully we can put the contamination behind us and move forward at this point.”
Even after the increase, Hammonton’s water rates remain lower than those of surrounding public or private water companies, DiDonato said. He and other officials believe residents can slash their bills by not overwatering lawns and by taking other water-conservation methods.
“The mayor and I have begged people to conserve,” Pullia said. “In these economic times, nobody wants to spend more.”
The Town Council passed a water-conservation measure in late 2011 that restricts residents to watering lawns three days a week, in response to demands from the DEP. The measure was another condition of getting permission to expand the town system.
Hammonton’s ordinance is not as strong as the model ordinance the DEP helped develop, with representatives of the horticultural and irrigation industries, in a Sustainable Jersey work group, Barnett said. That ordinance would allow people to water just two days a week.
Both allow exemptions for newly planted sod and plants, and allow smart irrigation systems to water when they detect the need.
“We took into account the needs of plants, lawns and the technology out there today for automatic irrigation systems,” Barnett said. “The ordinance we crafted was protective of the landscape and water supply.”
Many people overwater lawns and actually undermine the health of the grass plants, while wasting water and money, she said. Less frequent but deep watering results in deeper root growth and healthier plants.
Whether due to conservation or to residents’ reluctance to use it, total consumption of water through the Hammonton utility has fallen from 593 million gallons in 2010 to 551 million gallons in 2011 to 537 million gallons in 2012, according to the DEP.
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