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How NJ Developed the Nation’s Toughest Drinking Water Standards

Posted on April 15, 2019 by Lauren Scott

With progressive, new legislation enacted every few years since the 1980s, New Jersey has solidified itself as a national standard-bearer for drinking water regulation. In fact, the NJ Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) recently announced a proposal to set drinking water standards for a newly researched class of hazardous chemicals called perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

With this new proposal making its rounds in Trenton, we would like to look back and see how NJ became the legislative frontrunner for drinking water regulations that it is today.

Historical Improvements to the NJ Safe Drinking Water Act

1984 – The NJ Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) amendments established the Drinking Water Quality Institute (DWQI) as part of a comprehensive drinking water standard-setting process.

The DWQI is an advisory panel of state drinking water experts responsible for developing maximum contaminant levels (MCL) for hazardous contaminants in drinking water and for recommending the implementation of a drinking water quality program to the DEP. The SDWA amendments recommended MCLs for 22 contaminants, commonly referred to as “2a list” contaminants.

1989 – The DEP adopted MCL standards for 16 of the original 22 “2a list” contaminants. These included substances consumers encounter every day, such as benzene and xylenes, which are found in gasoline.

1996 – Five additional “2a list” contaminants were reevaluated and MCL standards were adopted by the DEP.

2006 – The DEP conducted a statewide study to examine the perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) class of chemicals. Among PFAS chemicals, the most well-known are perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), which were commonly used to manufacture nonstick cookware and food packaging, and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS), which was used in firefighting foams.

As the first of its kind in the US, this study included the analysis of PFOA and PFOS in 23 NJ drinking water systems. As a result, the DEP found that 27% of drinking water systems had quantifiable level of PFOS in their drinking water sources or finished drinking water.

2007 – As a result of the 2006 study, the DEP set a guidance level of 40 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFOA in water systems.

2009 – The DEP completed a follow-up to the 2006 study. The 2009 PFAS study determined the occurrence of PFOA, PFOS, and eight additional PFASs in drinking water sources for the 31 NJ public water systems sampled.

The study also found that 25% of these water systems had PFOS levels greater than 5 ng/L in at least one of their drinking water sources.

2010 to 2014 – Efforts to establish an MCL for a PFAS were derailed when the DWQI was disbanded in 2010. The institute would be reinstated again in 2014.

2018 – The DEP adopts an MCL of 14 ppt for perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA), another PFAS-class chemical. This made NJ the first and only state to adopt an MCL for any PFAS. The DEP also mandated public water systems to remediate their systems if PFNA levels are found to be higher than the MCL. However, no specific remediation guidelines were set.

Current Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments

The DEP proposed another set of amendments to the SDWA on April 1, 2019 that will establish standards for several PFAS-class chemicals.

The DEP proposes a 14-ppt standard for PFOA and a 13-ppt standard for PFOS. The proposal also includes monitoring requirements for these hazardous contaminants for public community and public non-transient noncommunity water systems. The DEP further proposes to amend the Private Well Testing Act to require private well testing for PFNA, PFOS, and PFOA prior to any real estate property sale or lease. A public hearing is scheduled for May 15 in Trenton, NJ.

Public comments can be submitted via e-mail until May 31.