After continued complaints from local and state officials, Gov. Phil Murphy ordered New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection to intervene in the operations of its capital city’s troubled water utility.
Murphy announced the move Oct. 12, directing the state agency into an advisory role at Trenton Water Works, which is responsible for providing running water for 225,000 people across four townships.
“Under the leadership of the DEP and in coordination with the City of Trenton we will work tirelessly to safeguard our residents and return water system quality to the level our communities deserve,” Murphy said at a press conference announcing the move.
According to a statement from the governor’s office, the state intends to pursue a two-phase plan to correct issues in funding and management while meeting a gap in the TWW’s technical capabilities that has led to quality concerns over water supplies.
The first phase of the plan calls for DEP officials and hired consultants to embed across TWW’s operations and provide “direct oversight and monitoring” while making recommendations on technical, managerial, and financial matters “necessary to bring the system into full compliance with applicable law,” said the governor’s office.
In the second phase of the plan, state officials will carry out a comprehensive assessment of TWW’s management, facilities, and finances, producing a report of short and long-term considerations for the governor with recommendations for improvements to “organizational and operational” activities as well as asset management and capital improvement planning.
The announcement came as welcome news to several local officials who have voiced concerns to the state over the course of the year about the dangerous degradation of water quality in their districts.
Along with a group of local mayors who petitioned the DEP during the summer, Sen. Shirley Turner, D-Mercer, Assemblymember Verlina Reynolds-Jackson, D-Trenton, and Assemblymember Anthony Verrelli, D-Hopewell Township, helped spearhead outreach efforts and met with state officials to request intervention to address “current and future operations, management failures, and public safety risks,” according to a statement from the trio.
Murphy’s move also comes after recommendations made by DEP officials following a months-long state assessment of TWW.
In a report published Sept. 27, officials said they found the facility to be in violation of several health safety law measures and that those shortcomings could put the public at risk and recommended some form of intervention.
The current plan falls far short of a full takeover and will instead focus on establishing a robust partnership between city and state officials to address concerns said Timothy Carroll, public information officer for the City of Trenton.
Carrol said city officials would seek the state’s technical assistance on “water filtration and distribution,” as well as “procurement approval to advance capital projects,” including a number the city intended to carry out after TWW launched a six-year, $405 million capital plan in 2020 meant to refit the plant and modernize its delivery network, all backed by issuances of special obligation revenue bonds.
Freeing up those funds, however, requires an approving vote from Trenton’s City Council, some of whose members have been locked in standoff with Mayor Reed Gusciora’s Administration that’s essentially frozen regular budgetary operations, already leaving a mark on the city’s long-term financial outlook.
Those issues have “delayed engineering work” and “jeopardized timely scheduling” of capital projects, said Carroll and, according to information provided by mayor’s office, frozen at least $221.6 million in capital funds meant for the TWW.
In an prepared remarks to the state Assembly’s Telecommunications and Utilities Committee Monday, Gusciora said that despite the continued gridlock in City Council, local officials were committed to forging a “strategic partnership” with the DEP and hoped to continue ahead with long delayed repairs and improvements.
The mayor said the city would partner with Mercer County Community College to offer an an in-house water operator training and apprenticeship program that would need critical staff shortages and strength “the capabilities of TWW’s workforce.”
Along with oversight, state intervention also brings with it the possibility of additional funding streams.
In addition to the $74 million in funds Trenton expects from the American Rescue Plan Act over the coming years, the governor’s office said the city would receive the benefit of “new and considerable” funding from the state, aimed entirely at “maintenance and operational needs crucial to the protection of public health.”
How much and in what form it still to be announced.