North Bergen is one of 21 municipalities in New Jersey tasked with an infrastructure project that will likely be the single greatest capital expenditure the township has ever made.
The discussion of the issue was tense at the North Bergen Board of Commissioners meeting on Sept. 11.
Consultants, attorneys, and engineers working with North Bergen’s sewerage authorities briefed officials and members of the public on the latest developments in an ongoing effort to comply with the federal government’s 2015 Clean Water Act.
Twenty-one towns in New Jersey, including North Bergen and practically every Hudson County municipality, are currently serviced by antiquated combined sewer systems which channel raw sewage and storm water through the same tunnel.
During storms, combined sewers can’t handle the volume of mixed sewage and storm water they take in. The pathogenic mixture of untreated waste- and storm-water follows the path of least resistance, and overflows into the nearest waterways. These incidents are known as combined sewage overflows (CSOs).
Separate regions of North Bergen are serviced by either the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission (PVSC) or the North Bergen Municipal Utilities Authority (MUA). Raw or partially-treated sewage from North Bergen is discharged by the North Bergen MUA into the Hudson River, and by the PVSC to the Hackensack River.
Since 2015, the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Water Act regulates how much raw or partially-treated sewage can be discharged into waterways. The federal government mandated massive infrastructural overhauls in every U.S. city with a combined sewer system.
The PVSC and dozens of sewerage authorities with combined systems have been meeting biweekly to evaluate the best infrastructure to install.
Improvements can be made to the sewer systems, with pumps, storage tanks, and treatment plant upgrades. Green infrastructure, including rain gardens and porous surfaces could capture storm water at the source. Satellite disinfection stations can be installed at runoff points in the event of an overflow.
These options have been analyzed for the past four years by PVSC and all other regional sewerage authorities. They submitted “Evaluations of Alternatives” reports to the state Department of Environmental Protection and federal EPA on July 31, which detail the costs and the infrastructure improvements favored by local authorities.
Outside funding is scarce
At the commissioner’s meeting, PVSC environmental consultant Michael Hope briefed officials in the first public presentation of the regional CSO project.
“We’re here to put together a menu for all of you, listing all of the things North Bergen can do to reach the reduction in overflows you need, and you can work with your own consultants on what to build and where, before pen goes to paper,” Hope said. “The plans for financing the project will have to be finalized by 2020.”
Hope said that New Jersey is the last state in the country that has not complied with the Clean Water Act.
As an environmental consultant, Hope’s goal is to prevent the EPA from interceding in the process through what’s called a consent decree.
“We’ve spent the past seven years fighting hard to prevent that,” he said.
If the EPA issues a consent decree, the municipal government and sewerage authorities have no control over infrastructure upgrades.
The EPA would dictate how much money the township must spend, and which upgrades would be made. Hope said that the federal government doesn’t have a fiscally conservative track record in sewer improvements.
Cities have filed suits against the EPA to get out of consent decrees, Hope said, but the EPA has won all of them.
Hope said that North Bergen’s costs will range from $56 million to $700 million, depending on the alternatives they use, but that the range would be narrowed down in “a few months.”
By comparison, this year’s entire North Bergen municipal budget is $95.4 million.
Hope anticipates that North Bergen will be able to stretch its build-out plan over roughly 25 years.
Hope said that there will likely be zero funding from the federal government to North Bergen or any other municipality in New Jersey for the infrastructure upgrades. Such funding would offset the the township’s burden, and in turn, offset the costs to residents by way of taxes and utility bills.
On the state level, municipalities will compete for financial assistance from a revolving state DEP fund.
“It’s not a grant, it’s a loan,” Hope said. “It’s a better rate than you might get through traditional bonding. But 21 programs are coming to a head at the same time. There will be competition for these dollars.”
The 21 municipalities with combined sewer systems that are tasked with the same EPA mandates are North Bergen, Hoboken, Weehawken, Guttenberg, West New York, Union City, Bayonne, Jersey City, Kearny, Harrison, East Newark, Newark, Paterson, Fort Lee, Hackensack, Ridgefield Park, Elizabeth, Perth Amboy, Camden, Gloucester, and Trenton.
Officials mull mobilizing
Township Manager Chris Pianese, who attends the biweekly CSO control meetings, said that it’s important that residents and officials begin to face the music.
“I’ve been going to these meetings with Frank Pestana [North Bergen MUA director] and we’re getting there in terms of the numbers,” Pianese said. “I think the town is in the dark about this project.”
Combined sewage overflow control budgets are becoming a heavy-hitting issue for every local government in Hudson County.
As the EPA’s deadlines approach, North Bergen officials fear that inadequate public information will generate a backlash against municipal governments, which are largely powerless in the face of federal jurisdiction.
North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco foresees political fallout from North Jersey communities facing major hikes in taxes and utility bills. “No one will look toward Congress or the Senate and ask ‘What are you doing about this? Why is this happening the way it is?’” he said.
He recalled the township’s Woodcliff Lake Sewage Treatment Plant which aroused similar tension.
“We went through this in 1991,” Sacco said. “No one cared what the reason was, or tried to comprehend why we were building the storage treatment plant. People were demanding that we abolish the Municipal Utilities Authority.”
Hope suggested mobilizing with other local officials to talk about the pressure the 21 towns in New Jersey are facing and push for federal help.
“Newark is not very high up on median household income,” Hope said. “If we have to raise their sewer rates by a factor of four, people can’t afford to get shoes for their kids, and they can’t feed their kids, and they can’t afford a car, and they can’t afford rent. There has to be an answer to this, and it’s going to be a political answer. We need to get local leaders together.”