How Safe is TCNJ’s Water?
April 16, 2017
The first time freshman journalism major Dylan Calloway started wondering about the College’s water quality was when he saw a picture of a moldy pipe near Eickhoff Hall on TCNJ Snap. As part of a group project for his journalism class, he and several other students were inspired to research further about the College’s water quality.
“It was just to raise awareness,” Calloway said of his and his fellow group members’ research. “If someone becomes aware then they might spread [that concern] to somebody else, and we’ll all become more well aware.”
It is easy to see why these students were concerned with water pollution and drinking water quality.
Videos of the citizens of Flint, MI setting their water on fire sparked the need for a lead test in many institutions nationwide –– including here, at the College.
Yet the concerns surrounding polluted water are not a new problem for New Jersey.
One contributor to our state’s industrialization and prosperity was Ciba-Geigy, a company that manufactured chemical dyes in Tom’s River N.J. from 1952 until 1990. Yet, as Dan Fagin documented in “Tom’s River: A story of science and salvation,” that prosperity came at a price –– toxic waste chemicals that the company had no use for were dumped into aquifers that polluted the town’s drinking water, which may have contributed to childhood cancers and other diseases.
Water quality is both an old and ongoing problem. A 2014 article from nj.com explained that 40 years after the Clean Water Act was passed, New Jersey has still been in the midst of cleaning its lakes, rivers and other bodies of water. According to the article, the EPA cited over a thousand instances of contaminated water across the state.
The struggle for better water comes from the efforts of organizations like Isles, which provides services for the improvement of the Trenton community. Their efforts include lead testing in community homes, and educating local citizens on environmental issues. The organization’s managing director, Peter Rose, recommends replacing lead fittings with inline filters in drinking fountain pipes to prevent lead from dissolving into the water at schools. “Cost effective and easy to do,” Rose said.
But what does all of this mean for the College’s water quality?
The College’s water comes from local water plant, Trenton Water Works, where water is treated and filtered before it arrives to the school. William Mitchell, superintendent of Trenton Water Works, explained that impurities found in pretreated water often come from farm run-off. This includes fecal matter, herbicides and pesticides, fertilizer and storm water discharge. During the winter, for example, chloride levels in the water increase after a lot of salting for snow and ice.
Trenton Water Works treats and filters its water before it reaches local taps. The filtration process involves flash mixing of treatment chemicals to the water, coagulation, flocculation and sedimentation–– small solid particles (flocs) stick together and become heavier in the water and begin to sink to the bottom; these impurities are then removed from the water.
“TCNJ is not aware of lead pipes in its buildings,” said the College’s spokesperson David Muha. Following public concerns about contaminated drinking water in the New Jersey area, the College hired environmental consultants from EnviroTrac to sample and evaluate the quality of the water. The company took samples of lead and copper from lines entering campus directly from Trenton Water Works such as all dining locations and athletic fields on campus. The analysis did not detect any concentrations of pollutants at or above the state and federal limit.
As of 2015, Trenton public schools reportedly did not contain any lead in their water, yet schools in Princeton, Ewing and West Windsor were found to have traces of up to 58 ppb as of April 2016.
Freshman journalism major Heidi Cho recalls her shock hearing about the picture Calloway saw of the moldy pipe on campus, and tried to do some digging. She, Calloway and other members of her journalism class started a website that cited research about the state of their local water quality. The pipe, located near Eickhoff appeared severed, and while Cho doesn’t know if it had ever served the College, she and her classmates are continuing to research the process of how the College water is treated and filtered.
In order to further determine the water quality at the school, I conducted a water quality test with a water test kit on Monday, Feb. 20 with a sample from a water fountain on the second floor of Forcina Hall. The water did not have any measurable levels of lead, pesticide or bacteria. The total chlorine level reached .5 parts per million, which is under the federal limit of 4 ppm. Nitrate nitrogen levels were at 5 ppm, which is under the federal limit of 10 ppm. The test found a copper level of 1.3 ppm in the water, which just meets the federal limit. There were no levels of iron found in the water, and the pH level of 6.0 was under the federal limit.
The hardness level of 6 grains, or 100 ppm found exceeded the federal limit of under 50 ppm, yet the maximum contaminant level cited by the TWW is 250 ppm, and TWW reported having 90 ppm, which was not deemed a violation.
Biology professor at the College Dr. Pecor, whose research focuses on freshwater ecology and freshwater invertebrates, explained that all I can truly conclude from my assessment is the state of the water quality at the Forcina water fountain specifically, not of the College’s water quality in general.
The fountain’s hardness level is due to minerals calcium and magnesium, Pecor explained. The disadvantages of too much water hardness are primarily aesthetic; it might require more soap or water softeners during laundry and might contribute to scaling in industrial equipment, but hardness does not fall under the EPA’s standards as a health risk.
Because of federal regulations, the risks to water quality are not what they used to be. Director of the Center for the Urban Environment at Thomas Edison State College Dr. Nicky Sheats, whose research centered around water pollution before shifting to air pollution, explained that both forms of pollution contributed to the phenomenon of acid rain that gained a lot of national attention during the 1980s’ and ‘90s.
According to the EPA’s website, both sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide were gases emitted from different industry power plants across the country. Sheats explained that rain, when contaminated with these elements, would then flow into surface water, making it more acidic and dangerous to consume. The EPA established the Acid Rain Program (ARP) in 1995, which offered incentives to power plants to reduce emission. By 2010, emissions were reduced to about one-half of what they were in 1980.
Yet, despite past and present attempts at improving the water quality, the future of these implementations may become uncertain. The new administration’s role in the country’s environmental protection has become Sheats’ biggest fear. “We’re really afraid that [the president] is going to cut back on existing laws that’s become a bedrock of environmental protection,” Sheats said. “I’m worried about the clean air act and the clean water act.”
According to an article published in Feb. in The New York Times, President Trump’s plan to sign an executive order that will allow him to direct the new Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Scott Pruitt, to essentially roll back on regulations under the 1972 Clean Water Act. This includes former president Barack Obama’s 2015 clean water rule, which gives the federal government the right to limit pollution in major bodies of water and other streams that flow into larger waters.
The rule stirred some controversy, according to the article, regarding the federal government’s right to exert such broad authority. Rural communities such as the American Farm Bureau Federation have been against this rule, which they argue forces them to apply for federal permits to use fertilizer near streams that might flow into larger bodies of water.
While Trump’s legal orders may take longer than his term to be put into action, a more lenient prohibition on water pollution will make filtering and treating water an even more critical process if there are more pollutants in the water to begin with.
Rose is most worried about the administration cutting back funding from the EPA and other environmental agencies –– those cuts won’t just threaten the health of the communities Isles is trying to help, but it will likely hurt “the health and well being of all Americans.”
|My Test Results
|New Jersey Limit (TWW Limit)
|No measurable level
|< 1.0 ppm
|Bacteria (Coliform/E. coli)
|No measurable level
|Present in <5% of samples tested/0 results
|Cannot be present in >5% of samples tested/0
|< 4 ppm
|< 50 ppb
|Sources: EPA.gov, NJ.gov, Personal water testing kit, TWW 2016 report