Wellhead Protection

Wellhead Protection Ordinance is Passed by Mountain Lakes Council!  

In June 2013 your Environmental Commission officially recommended a new ordinance to Borough Council.  For a look at the presentation made, please click here:  http://prezi.com/jtletsudr7nu/?utm_campaign=share&utm_medium=copy

The Borough Council is supportive of this new ordinance and instructed the Borough Manager to draft an ordinance.  The Mountain Lakes Environmental Commission has met with the Borough Manager and Engineer to recommend the best way forward in terms of maximizing success with the NJDEP.  We are waiting for the scheduling of the first reading before Council before the draft must go to the NJDEP for approval before second reading.

Why Mountain Lakes Needs a Wellhead Protection Ordinance. (Article from June 2013 Neighbor News)

GIS Map detailing wellhead protection zones in Mountain Lakes, NJ

On Monday, June 10rd the Environmental Commission of Mountain Lakes will recommend that the Borough Council adopt a new ordinance to protect our drinking water.

Mountain Lakes currently has an ordinance that does an excellent job of restricting the type of development that can take place in what is known as the prime aquifer zone upon which a portion of the Borough sits.  This ordinance gives the Council the power to regulate the building or the expansion of businesses that could harm the groundwater based upon the nature of the chemicals or potential pollutants that they deal with.

Our Current Water Ordinances Do Not Extend Far Enough to Protect the Drinking Water

Although this ordinance is environmentally progressive within New Jersey, new mapping tools reveal that our current ordinance does not go far enough from a geographic perspective.  The recent addition of GIS maps to the Borough’s Natural Resource Inventory (found on MLenvironmental.org under GIS mapping; link through to MCPRIMA; Legend tool) shows that the Hess gas station and Dixon Oil fall within a critical wellhead protection zone yet fall outside the parameters of our current ordinances.

To understand the issue requires a basic understanding of wellhead protection zones. When it comes to groundwater aquifers (like ours), the most important thing to protect is the area around the wellheads.  If contaminants seep into the aquifer itself, while not a good thing, they dissipate within the surface area of the groundwater or can be remediated before they reach the water supply.  When those same contaminants seep in around the wellheads, however, the sucking action of the pump concentrates them and pulls them into the water supply before a municipality has time to remove them.  The result is polluted groundwater.

A Hazardous Spill Can Reach the Water Supply Within 5 Years Within a Tier 2 Well Head Protection Zone

The most critical area around the wellhead is known as “Tier 1” and contaminants take approximately 2 years to reach the water supply.  The next designation is “Tier 2” and contaminants take approximately 5 years to reach the water supply.  Five years may sound like a long time but in the majority of cases, “spills” are not catastrophic events that the public, or even the businesses themselves, are aware of.  A case in point is our principal aquifer well on Route 46.  This well was deemed unsafe by the EPA in 1999 because excessive levels of volatile chemicals were detected in our drinking water.  The remediation was the installation of an air stripper that functions to this day.  The point here is that there was no hazardous spill that alerted the municipality to potential groundwater contamination.  What is known is that a dry cleaner sits within the Tier 1 zone of this well and groundwater contamination exists. The businesses that occupy critical zones next to wellheads can have a direct link to the safety of our drinking water.

Impact of a Wellhead Protection Ordinance on Development

Wellhead protection ordinances, such as those already in place in East Hanover, Parsippany and Milburn, amongst others, give the governing body the right to regulate and restrict potentially hazardous development or activities within these critical Tier 1 and Tier 2 zones.  Types of development normally restricted include gas stations, dry cleaners, beauty salons, land fills, cemeteries, chemical production factories, etc..  Existing businesses are grandfathered in.  The important point here is that the wellhead protection regulations are essentially guidelines to the municipal government.  If a developer makes a compelling case that their new gas station can safely sit in a Tier 2 zone, for example, the governing body can take into consideration all relevant facts and circumstances and use its discretion to determine how to proceed. I don’t think anyone would suggest that the presence of a wellhead protection ordinance in Parsippany has slowed development.  The bottom line is that this ordinance does not prevent development it simply gives the governing body a highly useful legislative tool for use when confronted with development projects that threaten the water supply.

State and Federal Regulations are Inadequate to Protect Groundwater Contamination. 

Current state and federal regulations do a good job on three fronts:  a.) Monitoring the water that comes from our tap; b.) Protecting the quality of surficial water bodies like lakes and oceans and c.) Establishing a process for remediation once water supplies are contaminated.  What they do not do is proactively protect groundwater before it’s contaminated.   In fact, federal laws actually recommend that local governments enact such legislation on their own. Rather than wait until we have a problem and the state and federal governments need to step in, the prudent thing to do is to prevent contamination in the first place.

So What Would Mountain Lakes do if our Principal Well on Route 46 was Shut Down? 

Well #5 on Route 46 provides 83% of our drinking water – that means that we are extremely reliant upon this resource.  This is not a strong place to be.  Replacement options exist but none of them are particularly good.  We could try to pump more water from our 3 back up wells, however, a League of Women Voters study documented that, historically, these wells have not been productive enough to replace our primary well.  At this time, well #3 is not even operational.  Secondly, we could dig new wells but the NJDEP prohibits this practice because the aquifer we draw from is already being depleted faster than it is being recharged. Alternatively, we could seek to buy water from our neighbors but Parsippany for one, is already purchasing water from Jersey City because they exceed their water allocation during the summer.  While they may be able to supply us during a short-term emergency, we do not have a contract to allow us to purchase water over the long term.  Additionally, Parsippany is “down wind” from us in the aquifer and depending upon the nature of our contamination, their groundwater could be threatened.

Town of Hammonton NJ spends $5MM to Remediate 2 Wells

In a recent article in the Press of Atlantic City, the town of Hammonton shut down 2 wells for over a year due to groundwater pollution.  The source appears to be naturally occurring as well as caused by mercury contamination and pesticide and petroleum-linked VOCs. Remediation costs were as follows:  a.) $168M emergency carbon filter to remove VOCs on one well; b.) $1.7MM water filtration system on 2 wells and $3.2MM to extend an alternate water source to residents affected by the shut down.  The NJDEP is expected to pay approximately 40% of the costs with the remainder funded by taxpayers.  Municipal water rates have increased +27% and the spending is not finished.  Hammonton began the process of bidding the remediation of their 3rd well in April 2013.

In closing, enacting wellhead protection is not “anti-development”.  Mountain Lakes is overly reliant upon a single source of water and it is good management practices to make sure that supply is protected from contamination.  How many businesses, and new residents for that matter, would want to move into town if our primary well was closed?  Could we afford a $3MM remediation effort?  Sometimes an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.