Jersey City officials are calling for a hearing claiming Suez Water mismanaged notifying the public after testing indicated E. coli was present in the city’s water system on Aug. 11, three days before the public was notified on the morning of Aug. 14.
“The fact that Jersey City just learned of E. coli in our drinking water 72 hours after the initial test and 24 hours after a second positive test was confirmed is unacceptable,” said Ward E Councilman James Solomon. “The City Council must investigate and call Suez Water Executives before us to testify. We must understand why this delay in notification occurred and what plans they will put in place to ensure it never happens again.”
E. coli are bacteria whose presence indicates that the water may be contaminated with human or animal wastes. Human pathogens in these wastes can cause short-term effects, such as diarrhea, cramps, nausea, headaches, or other symptoms. They may pose a greater health risk for infants, young children, the elderly, and people with severely compromised immune systems.
“On August 11, 2020, we collected a sample from the distribution system. The sample tested positive for E. coli. Additional samples were collected on August 12, 2020 that confirmed the presence of E. coli on the evening of August 13, 2020,” states a water warning from Suez distributed on the evening of Aug. 14
“These bacteria can make you sick and are especially a concern for people with weakened immune systems,” stated the warning. “Bacterial contamination can occur when increased runoff enters the drinking water source (for example, following heavy rains). It can also happen due to a break in the distribution system (pipes) or a failure in the water treatment process.”
Members of the public questioned the city’s and Suez’s response, charging advisories to boil water were “delayed.”
“Why did you keep the fact that our water was unsafe quiet for three days?,” tweeted one resident at Suez.
“WHY on earth R we finding this out in #jerseycity nearly 24 hours later?” tweeted another resident at Mayor Steven Fulop. “My husband has stage 4 cancer, I used tap water 2 wash all his food/veggies & fed it to him! What would U B saying if this was UR WIFE??? During global #COVID19 pandemic with stay at home orders 4 High Risk?”
On the front burner
According to Fulop, the city wasn’t notified of the positive test result until Aug. 14 when it immediately issued a boil water advisory; boiling kills the bacteria in the water.
According to city spokesperson Kimberly Wallace Scalcione, the city acted more quickly than state guidelines necessitate, sending notifications to the public on all the city’s social media platforms, through the SwiftReach emergency notification system, and on the homepage of the city’s website.
“To be clear, the administration took action the minute they were notified of the elevated testing with a boil water alert far ahead of DEP guidelines – there was no delay as they were actually well ahead of guidelines while more testing was being conducted,” said Wallace-Scalcione. “Furthermore, the Mayor put the boil water advisory out for the entire city out of an abundance of caution, even though the DEP guidelines only ask the impacted area receive the advisory.”
According to Suez, the cause of the contamination is under investigation.
Fulop said that the primary area affected was around Christ Hospital in the Jersey City Heights.
According to the mayor, the testing locations in question were concentrated around a water main site that was very recently replaced next to Christ Hospital.
“The subsequent test that triggered the boil advisory was a follow up several houses away that also had the same work done in close proximity,” he said. “Our experts don’t believe that this was a coincidence, but it will take some time before there is 100 percent certainty.”
According to Fulop, the water is tested around 150 times per month. The city hasn’t had a similar incident in more than 17 years.
That said, he too is “disappointed” in Suez.
“We are extremely concerned and extremely disappointed in Suez here,” Fulop said. “The time lag between when Suez first was aware of the issue with a test result and when they notified the city of a potential issue is absolutely unacceptable.”
He added that the city will “pursue this aggressively against Suez with the City Council.”
He said the city is now working with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, SUEZ, and the Jersey City Municipal Utilities Authority to better understand what happened and to make sure the system, and processes around that system, improve going forward.
“We still have more work to do on my side, and we won’t stop until we feel all question have been answered,” he said.