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Ry Rivard

In New Jersey, another capital city struggles to provide safe water

The New Jersey State House in Trenton, N.J., on Nov. 10, 2021. | Matt Rourke/AP Photo

TRENTON, N.J. — If there is going to be another capital city without safe water anytime soon, it may be New Jersey’s.

On the heels of a water crisis in Jackson, Miss., officials in New Jersey have moved to tighten state oversight of Trenton’s water system, citing the “imminent and substantial endangerment” to more than 200,000 customers in and around the capital city.

While Trenton’s water is considered safe to drink at the moment, the state Department of Environmental Protection says maintenance and operation failures threaten the city and four suburbs by creating conditions that invite bacteria, lead contamination and worms into the drinking water supply. Some of the issues are longstanding, but dysfunction in City Hall prompted the state to step in.

The future of Trenton Water Works could now be decided, in large part, by the outcome of Tuesday's city election.

The water system's problems follow years of neglect, the city’s current leaders agree. What the state, the current mayor and members of the City Council don’t agree on is how many years and who did the neglecting.

There is some obvious malfeasance in recent memory. In 2012, Stanley "Muscles" David, the half-brother of corrupt former Trenton Mayor Tony Mack, pleaded guilty to misconduct for asking water crews to perform private side jobs using city equipment. There are also less malign miscues that starved the water system of money, like the failure to raise rates until recently. A city budget impasse prompted the state to consider the city as ineligible for federal pandemic relief and infrastructure money.

The state largely blames the City Council for the problems. In recent regulatory documents, DEP officials said they are “disturbed by the current city council’s continuing failures or refusals” to approve infrastructure projects. As a result of these failures, Trenton officials “will be unlikely to meet their long-outstanding obligations” to make water safety upgrades, the documents state.

Incumbent Mayor Reed Gusciora largely agrees with this.

Gusciora, who took office in 2018, is running for reelection against two council members — Kathy McBride and Robin Vaughn — who have opposed some of his plans to fix the system, like voting down plans to replace a water main that keeps breaking, remove lead service lines and fix a roof on the water treatment plant. Gusciora blames them and the council for voting down projects to make his administration look bad and help their campaigns for mayor.

“At some point, they turned on a political switch and have tried to stop every kind of progress that we're making with the water department,” Gusciora said.

McBride, who is the council president, said she decided to run for mayor after seeing Gusciora struggle. She said the council has been doing due diligence about spending and blames Gusciora for the water system’s ongoing problems.

“When he applied for the job, he knew these problems existed, so [blaming the council] is an excuse and it’s a cop out,” McBride said.

Vaughn, the other council member running for mayor, did not respond to a request for comment, but her relationship with the mayor may be even worse. Recordings of a 2020 call among city officials caught Guscioria calling Vaughn an idiot and Vaughn calling Gusciora a pedophile and telling another council member to perform oral sex on the mayor. Gusciora was the first openly gay member of the state Legislature before he became Trenton’s first openly gay mayor.

In Jackson, Miss., advocates argued that long-running problems at the city’s troubled water treatment plant show the largely Black city has been neglected by the Republican-controlled state government. Some, but not all, of those dynamics are in place in Trenton, a city that is 49 percent Black and 37 percent Hispanic or Latino, according to Census data.

In an interview, Gusciora blamed the former Republican Gov. Chris Christie for some of the city’s problems, such as holding up hiring of water system staff, but put more blame on the current council. The current governor, Democrat Phil Murphy, has promised to “work tirelessly to safeguard our residents and return water system quality to the level our communities deserve.”

Murphy, like many lawmakers and state employees, lives outside of Trenton. Neither Murphy’s private home nor the governor’s official residence, Drumthwacket in nearby Princeton, get Trenton tap water.

Gusciora moved into Trenton after his legislative district was reconfigured and, in 2018, won the mayor’s race in a crowded field. Several people pointed to that history as part of the political tension he has with the council.

“People on council thought he was the white boy carpetbagger who knew better than everybody else,” said Steven Picco, who was Gusciora’s interim director of Trenton Water Works in late 2019. “So there was that. So there were chips on both sets of shoulders, which is not a good way to begin a relationship.”

Gusciora is white, McBride and Vaughn are Black.

In recent weeks, the DEP posted a decades-old report to then-Gov. Brendan Byrne about a catastrophic failure of Trenton’s water treatment plant over Labor Day weekend 1975. The report blamed the outage on “human error, equipment failure and design vulnerability.”

Mentioning this episode — from nearly 50 years ago — seems to annoy Trenton officials, as do any comparisons to Jackson, where residents have faced more than 300 boil water orders in the past two years and were left without running water for days at the end of the summer after flooding overwhelmed the city-run water treatment plant.

New Jersey officials have not compared Trenton to Jackson — during an interview, for instance, both the mayor and one of his top aides drank water straight from the tap in City Hall — but raising the specter of Trenton's own historic treatment plant failure is hardly a vote of confidence in the system today.

“The infrastructure is fine. It needs work because there hasn’t been any work in 20 years, but there are good people in that department that know what they are doing,” Picco said. “They have all the tools they could devise themselves in place, they just need the OK to get on with it, which they haven’t been able to get.”

Picco said the mayor kept teeing up water projects that the council kept shooting down without having a real alternative. At one point, the mayor said the council voted down a $15 million plan to replace lead service lines, even though half of that money was a loan that would be forgiven by the state.

Some of the issues from bygone eras remain, like an open air reservoir.

Picco, who was in private practice as a lawyer before his stint for the water system, said one of his first jobs as lawyer for DEP was working on a report in the mid-1970s telling the city to cover an open air reservoir it has in town. Such reservoirs leave water exposed to the elements and have long been an issue. After 9/11, the push to cover them became even more urgent because they can be a security risk.

Trenton’s reservoir remains open all these years later and a plan to fully replace it with a series of water towers has stalled. In the meantime, according to the state, algae growing in the reservoir have contributed to the presence of midges — a kind of fly that is a worm in its larval stage — in the water system. The worms are not considered to be a health threat, but no water system wants a headline about worms in the water, which is what the city got. The state blamed the city council for “recurrent failure to approve critical and necessary funding.”

After the state moved to strengthen oversight of Trenton Water Works, Gusciora testified in front of state lawmakers and told them he not only welcomed the state stepping in to help run the system, he wants lawmakers to make clear that DEP can bypass the city to ensure Trenton Water Works is well-run and that its water is safe.

The mayor doesn’t support privatizing the system, but any kind of runaround may stir up long-running fears in the city that outsiders would come to seize control of the water system, which remains a source of civic pride.

That taps into long-running fears in the city that outsiders would come to seize control of the water system, which remains a source of civic pride. The system is one of the oldest in the country and a good local employer. Several of its top staffers are Black women.

At City Council meetings, public speakers will get up to talk about their worries that a private company will step in to take over the system. Two decades ago, voters helped block an attempt to sell off part of the water system to New Jersey American Water Co. In New Jersey, which is home to American Water’s corporate headquarters, this was a major victory for opponents of privatization.

The state’s oversight of the city stops short of privatizing, but pressure may be on to do more. The state's increased oversight seems to amount to a partnership between the state and the mayor to bypass the City Council, which Gusciora is open to, but a new mayor may not want. Even the mayor concedes the state’s current oversight order is legally dubious.

Four surrounding towns — Ewing, Hamilton, Hopewell and Lawrence — rely in part on drinking water from Trenton but don’t have any say in how the system operates. Several of the towns have joined a DEP lawsuit against Trenton and also floated a variety of ideas to wrest control of the water system from the city, including regionalizing oversight of the system or privatizing it.

Hamilton Township Mayor Jeff Martin said he is glad the state has stepped in, but is open to further changes, including privatization. Already, he knows some families in his town that are paying for delivery of bottled water because they don’t trust the water coming from Trenton. In Hamilton, there have been several cases and one death from Legionnaires’ disease, a pneumonia-like disease that comes from breathing mist from bacteria-filled water.

“The complaint against privatization is it’s going to raise rates, but if it provides a safe clean product, for those who are paying private spring water, it’s still going to be cheaper, even if the rates go up,” he said.

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