Last week, Verona residents got a two-page letter with information on our drinking water. The first page is all stuff we knew already–namely, that the wells that used to supply half of our water failed to meet the state standard for chemicals known as PFOAs. But flip the letter over and down near the bottom is the disclosure that the township believes that the work on fixing the wells won’t be finished until November 2024 for the Linn Drive well and March 2025 for the Fairview Avenue well. That means that residents could be paying the 26% increase in the water bills–needed to cover the cost of buying water from outside Verona–for another 14 to 17 months.
Not in the letter: The cost of upgrading the filtration system on Verona’s wells has skyrocketed. When the town announced the filtration work last August, the price tag was pegged at $1 million. Now, a town officials says the tab could be as much as $8 million to $9 million.
UPDATE, AUGUST 12: Steve Neale, the Verona official who provided the figure above, said today that he provided incorrect information. “Unfortunately, I did misspeak with that estimate on cost and will need to send you an updated statement,” Neale said in a text message. He said that the $8 million to $9 million included other projects and that he would not know the cost of the well project alone until a study on it is completed. He did not provide a timeframe for when that would happen.
The reason for the sharply higher cost seems to have nothing to do with how Verona is managing the upgrades in its weekly meetings with an outside engineering firm, Jacobs Engineering Group of Morristown. Rather, so many New Jersey water districts must now meet the stricter state standard for PFOA in drinking water that demand for filtration components and construction has pushed the prices for them higher. Steve Neale, Verona’s director of economic development disclosed the new cost estimate in a conversation with this reporter, adding, “that’s hopefully a high estimate.”
How much of the cost will be borne by Verona residents remains to be seen. When the well problem was first disclosed, Verona officials thought they might be able to get help paying for the work from the New Jersey Infrastructure Bank (I-Bank). In January, the state launched the Water Infrastructure Investment Plan (WIIP), which will work with the I-Bank specifically on water projects. WIIP is funded by the federal government’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the state. This year, WIIP is allotting $12.9 million specifically to address contaminants such as PFAS, and another $104 million for other drinking water issues. But how the funding will be distributed and how much of our costs will be covered is still unclear. Neale said that Verona is “actively pursuing” available funding.
For years, Verona got its drinking water from its two wells within its borders and from a Passaic Valley Water Commission (PVWC) reservoir to our north. The three sources were blended in water tanks on the east and west side of town, which pump water into our homes and businesses.
But since last August, we haven’t been able to use our wells because the water in them exceeded New Jersey’s standard for PFOA, part of a family of chemicals known as PFAS that were used in non-stick pans, stain repellants, firefighting foam and other things. In 2016, the federal government set the acceptable level for PFAS contamination, but states could set stricter standards if they wished. New Jersey did that for PFOA in drinking water in 2018 but gave water authorities until 2020 to be in compliance, at 14 parts per trillion (PPT). In 2020, Verona’s water tested between 20.4 and 28.4 PPT. (Verona posts all water quality reports here.) It is not known how Verona’s wells came to be contaminated by PFOA.
According to state data, Verona is now one of about 100 entities that are out of compliance on PFOA in their drinking water. Some are other towns, like Garfield, Ho-Ho-Kus, Mahwah and Livingston, but there are also businesses, schools, mobile home communities, yacht clubs and churches on the list. Some water districts serve only a handful of people. Ridgewood, which serves 61,700 people, is the largest town on the list, but the Middlesex Water Company is also out of compliance, which affects 233,376 people. All of these entities must now compete for remediation systems in an already strained supply chain, which is raising prices.