New bill would create commission to oversee troubled Trenton Water Works

By: - October 10, 2022 7:00 am

Trenton Water Works supplies about 29 million gallons of drinking water to about 200,000 people daily in Trenton, Ewing, Hamilton, Hopewell, and Lawrenceville. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

A state lawmaker has revived long-stalled legislation that would establish an oversight commission to take control of the long-troubled Trenton Water Works and monitor reforms.

Officials in the capital city now manage the city-owned utility, which the state Department of Environmental Protection has cited repeatedly in recent years for failing to ensure the safety of the 29 million gallons of water the utility delivers daily to 200,000 residents of Trenton and four adjacent townships.

Under a bill sponsored by Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Middlesex), a Mercer Regional Water Services Commission would be created to oversee Trenton Water Works’ rate-setting, service quality, and infrastructure operations, as well as remediation measures to bring the utility into environmental compliance. State officials and leaders of the five municipalities served — Ewing, Hamilton, Hopewell, Lawrence, and Trenton — would comprise the bulk of the 17-member commission.

The bill comes about a week after mayors in the utility’s service area called on state environmental officials to take “direct supervision and operation” of the 200-year-old utility “to end years of gross incompetence.”

“The residents of Hamilton have suffered far too long due to the failures of Trenton Water Works and left us with absolutely no confidence in their ability to operate the utility,” Hamilton Mayor Jeff Martin said in a statement last month.

Lead contamination has been a systemwide problem, although violations for other pathogens and contaminants also are a frequent occurrence. In August, a study found 50% of homes serviced by Trenton Water Works in Hamilton tested positive for legionella bacteria, which can cause Legionnaires’ disease.

State environmental officials recently sent Trenton leaders a letter saying they are “disturbed by the current city council’s continuing failures or refusal to authorize resolutions necessary to advance critical capital improvements and ensure that ordinary maintenance and operational needs crucial to the protection of public health are met.”

The department has issued multiple orders requiring the utility to correct problems with its operations, emergency response plans, and staffing. The state sued the city and utility in 2020, in a lawsuit joined by the impacted municipalities, for failing to pay for mandated upgrades.

Legislative action became necessary because the persistent problems have “become a public health concern,” the bill reads.

Greenstein, whose district includes Hamilton, introduced the same bill in January 2020 and July 2018, but it failed to move. On Friday, she told the New Jersey Monitor she expects renewed attention on Trenton Water Works’ entrenched problems could help her bill gain traction.

“They’ve been given many, many chances to fix things, but it’s just a complete mess,” Greenstein said.

Trenton Water Works’ Pennington Avenue Reservoir, which holds about 100 million gallons of water, has been in service since 1899 and is one of the oldest parts of the utility’s infrastructure. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

Oversight overdue

Last month, Greenstein echoed the mayors’ call for change.

“Time and time again, the residents of this region have been failed by the Trenton City Council and Trenton Water Works,” she said then. “Despite the actions of some to try and resolve these long-standing issues, it is readily apparent that a change in leadership is desperately needed.”

Under her revived bill, the oversight commission would have 17 members, including the mayors and a council member from each municipality the utility serves, appointees from the state Departments of Environmental Protection and Community Affairs and the state Board of Public Utilities, three members of the public (appointed by the Mercer County Executive), and an independent chairperson who lives in the service area but isn’t an elected official or utility or government employee.

Any ordinances or resolutions Trenton City Council members approve concerning Trenton Water Works would have to be reviewed and ratified by the commission before taking effect. The commission also would monitor the utility’s compliance with safe-water laws, notify state environmental officials of concerns, and ensure the utility issues progress reports, addresses staffing shortages, and notifies customers of water quality and service problems.

The legislation requires the commission to analyze Trenton Water Works’ progress and issue a report to the governor and Legislature five years after the bill becomes law.

Joe Marchica, chair of the progressive advocacy group Our Revolution Trenton Mercer, attributed the water utility’s problems largely to the city’s scandal-plagued history and fierce infighting among its leaders.

“You’re talking about a city that’s been historically underfunded. You’re talking about a city with a history of political corruption, where the money that does get there doesn’t always get where it’s supposed to,” Marchica said. “This happens in communities of color because there’s a lack of resources, and there’s no push from the powerful to get quality, functional government that centers the people in those communities.”

Last Wednesday, Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora held a press conference to defend his efforts to modernize the utility since he became mayor in 2018.

He blamed Trenton City Council’s “persistent interference … obstruction and inaction” for the lack of progress, listing 10 recent council votes that failed on things including lead line and water main pipe replacements and capital improvements. Gusciora’s two most vocal critics — council president Kathy McBride and council member Robin Vaughn — consistently voted no.

“At every turn, certain council members obstructed our process,” Gusciora said. “They weaponized the word ‘no,’ abandoning their fiduciary responsibilities and obligations to the residents of Trenton and water-utility ratepayers.”

The utility’s ongoing problems have become a campaign issue in the current race for Trenton City Council, where six of the seven seats have open races, as well as for the mayor’s office, where Gusciora is being challenged by McBride and Vaughn.


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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.