Journalism | Community Split Over Keeping Tainted Well Data Secret (The Newark Star-Ledger)

Project Description: As a reporter for The Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ) uncovered and wrote this piece about a previously unreported loophole in a state drinking water law. This piece is unavailable online. The full text — from the June 26, 2005 edition of The Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ) — is reprinted here
A young resident of Brookwood Road in Byram, NJ fills a cooking pot with bottled water after test results showed their home’s drinking water was contaminated with trichloroethylene, or TCE

At Issue: Byram Residents Fearful of Water Contamination Want Access to Results

When Byram resident Marilyn Urban heard the rumors earlier this month about toxic drinking water creeping through the wells in her neighborhood, she dialed the local health department to find out whether the contamination was right next door.

She was rebuffed. The department had the precise information she was looking for – test results documenting which homes in her neighborhood had wells with high levels of trichloroethylene, an industrial degreaser and probable carcinogen known as TCE.

But it was confidential. Kept in a separate file and immune from public record requests.

The test results were protected under the state’s private well testing act, which took effect in 2002 and requires those selling homes with private wells to test their drinking water and provide buyers with the findings. When harmful chemicals are found, the data are forwarded to the state Department of Environmental Protection and local health agencies.

Officials may notify nearby residents of a potential danger, suggesting that they test their wells. But the law bars officials from disclosing the precise locations of contaminated wells. Even when it’s right next door.

Urban lives in Byram’s East Brookwood neighborhood, where 18 homes have TCE contamination at levels nearly 100 times the state drinking water standard. Urban said she’s disturbed by the law’s tight-lipped approach.

“I understand the need for privacy, but I think it’s always better to know more,” Urban said. “You have many people here drinking contaminated water for who knows how long. Anybody would rather know so they can do something about it.”

A DEP spokeswoman defended the law as one that keeps the public informed about potential contamination while protecting the privacy of homeowners.

“(The law) ensures buyers and sellers are both well-informed about water quality and also allows the department to collect information on water quality on a statewide basis,” DEP spokeswoman Alescia Teel said. “We still make people aware of the potential harm or exposure without disclosing one specific location or address.”

Byram Councilwoman Donna Griff and her family have been drinking and cooking with bottled water since May, when tests revealed the drinking water of their Brookwood Road home contained 25 parts of TCE per billion, well over the state standard of 1 part per billion.

Griff echoed Urban’s opinion.

“I definitely think the right to know outweighs confidentiality (concerns),” Griff said. “It should be mandated that they’re required to notify at least the residents on either side.”

But other residents say they are grateful for the anonymity granted under the state’s private well testing act.

Susan Dolce, a Brookwood Road resident, also has been relying on bottled water since learning about the local well contamination. But Dolce said she’s as concerned, if not more concerned, about the situation’s effect on neighborhood home values.

“People in the neighborhood would like to keep it on a must-know basis,” Dolce said. “They worked hard to get their houses, keep them nice. Then something like this comes along, which is totally beyond their control.”

Jane Nogaki of the New Jersey Environmental Federation has kept close tabs on the law since her organization helped lobby for its passage in 2001.

She said she has seen failed well test results divide neighborhoods in her Evesham Township community. Neighbors hide results from one another. Or point fingers when real estate deals turn sour.

“I know three people whose well tests have failed. Their neighbors don’t know. Who’s going to tell them?” Nogaki said.

When the law was conceived, activists hoped it would lead to widespread public notification when chemicals were found in local wells.

The genesis of the law was a case in Monroe, where a resident of the Gloucester County township’s Eastwoods development discovered her well was tainted with mercury and the poisonous solvent dichloroethylene.

Rather than keep silent about the contamination, Irene Flood warned her neighbors. And Flood went a step further, giving Ed Knorr, chairman of the Gloucester County-based Green Action Alliance, permission to go door to door letting people know exactly where the problem was.

Eventually 34 out of 57 nearby residents discovered they too were drinking polluted water.

The law’s rough outlines were drafted at Knorr’s kitchen table. Its intent was to protect residents from tainted drinking water by giving them as much information as possible.

Knorr said he encountered opposition from local public officials and was accused of creating a public panic. But he insists that such knowledge is better kept in the hands of too many than too few.

“When something strikes a community, I think you should let everyone know and take it from there,” Knorr said.

Knorr said the private well testing act is an important first step for New Jersey. But he added that the law he proposed was watered down by legislators concerned about eroding home values.

“Some legislators had a feeling it would hurt real estate values,” Knorr said. “Mostly it centered on people being concerned they wouldn’t be able to sell their property or their neighborhood would be labeled a toxic neighborhood.”

The resulting compromise on the confidentiality clause was dubbed the “friendly anonymous neighbor notification” – and allowed health departments to offer broad information about local contamination.

But some health officials say their hands are tied by the law’s confidentiality requirement.

“Having the confidentiality (requirement) does not help us help the people we need to help,” said Clement Ferdinando, Randolph’s health officer.

The law suggests that health departments send notifications to residents within 200 feet of a contaminated well, informing them that a well in the area may be contaminated and advising they test their own wells.

But Kenneth Hawkswell, West Milford’s health director, said the first thing residents want to know after receiving such a notification is where exactly the contamination has been found.

“People ask ‘How far away is it? Where is it? Whose house is it?’” Hawkswell said. “All you can say is ‘It’s somewhere in the area.’”