South River: Water Emergency Declared; Treatment Plant Operator Arrested


South River officials declared a water emergency in the borough of South River after stinky, brown water came out of residents’ pipes on June 26. Robert Baker, the former licensed operator of the South River Water Department, was arrested and charged with a violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act in June.

The brown water appeared because of a combination of a “perfect storm” of factors, according to Borough Administrator Art Londensky:

The borough was completing general maintenance in the treatment plant, water use among residents spiked as temperatures rose and contractors used fire hydrants to control dust as they demolished houses for an unrelated project. These activities stirred up sediments in the pipes and created the brown water.

After Baker’s arrest, the borough hired Agra Environmental to manage the department and plant. Mike Furrey, the founder and president of the company, said there were some problems with the treatment system and its chlorination system. Agra has since installed new equipment and completed line repairs to help manage the pH level of the water, are is in the process of determining if the filters need to be replaced, testing for lead and copper, and making sure the water is properly treated.

The water is currently fine to drink, and said the NJ Department of Environmental Protection has not put any restriction on ingesting it.

The borough draws water from its own wells, and it supplements that supply by purchasing water from neighboring East Brunswick, which has a contract with South River to supply up to 850,000 gallons of water per day. Town officials are enacting the emergency to reduce the need to buy more water from East Brunswick, in case the plant needs to be shut off while repairs are taking place.

“Using water restrictions, [the borough] is trying to buy less,” Londensky said. “[There might be] unexpected expenses [when we make the improvements] so we’re trying to keep it down to a minimum, [to] do a water restriction for a short time period.” The water restrictions include the following:

Borough residents with odd numbered street addresses may only sprinkle lawns, shrubbery and gardens, wash cars and fill pools on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays between the hours of 6 and 9 a.m. or between 5 and 8 p.m. Those with even numbered street addresses are limited to usage during those hours on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays.

As for longer-term fixes, Londensky said the town is rehabilitating the entire treatment plant to improve the quality, which may require replacement, relining, or re-cleaning of pipes. Furrey estimates there will be two months of “pretty significant repairs” and said the engineer is currently preparing a cost estimate.

Londensky said the borough hopes to make “significant improvements” by the end of this week. Robert Baker is scheduled to make his first appearance in Middlesex County Superior Court on August 9.

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