Trenton Water Works Has Only One-Third of the Staff Needed to Operate its System

dep 11-27-17

The screenshot above is from a 10/30/17 letter to Mayor Eric Jackson from NJ Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) Bob Martin. It can be found on page 7 of this linked redacted document released by NJDEP as part of an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request filed by me in early November. This 10-30 letter serves as the summary of findings of critical deficiencies in the ongoing management of the Trenton Water Works by the city of Trenton. These findings have led to a plan that is well underway to transfer management of the Water Works from the City and contract it out to an outside commercial firm. This transfer will initially be done on a short-term emergency basis, but is expected to lead to a longer-term (maximum 10 years) management contract. Not mentioned, but surely on the table, is the possibility of Trenton losing ownership of at least part if not all of the Water Works.

That plan is outlined in a letter dated November 3 from Michelle Putnam, Acting Assistant Commissioner of Water Resource Management for NJDEP to one Henry Amoroso, Exec Director of HJA Strategies of West Orange. His role is so far unclear. That letter can be found starting on Page 1 of the attached.

The key DEP findings, summarized in the screenshot above, indicate that although problems with TWW have been the subject of discussion over the last ten years, over the last year and some months, the City has failed to take required actions it had agreed to, chiefly deficiencies in staffing. The most shocking finding, in the screenshot above right before the redaction, is “that although TWW carries a $12 Million Surplus, it has only one-third of the staff needed to operate its system.”

You will remember that on the very same date of November 3 that the City met with the State agencies, the City of Trenton issued an advisory to its customers throughout Mercer County. This advisory stated “low water pressure” as the reason for the water restrictions it put into place that day. Even though low water pressure may have been the immediate cause of that day’s incident, we now know for a fact that the City of Trenton’s negligence in staffing the Trenton Water Works at all levels in the utility have, in the words of the state NJDEP Commissioner (quoting Trenton’s own consultant’s report) raised “significant concerns regarding its ability to reliably supply drinking water to its customers on a continuous basis without adverse incidents.”

This is only one of 17GB worth of documents I’ve received from NJDEP. They will of course be posted as I start to process them. I am also expecting additional documents from the City in response to a (several times delayed) OPRA request filed there.

This is a big story, as I am sure you will realize. More to come. Thank you.

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Would you feel safe in a city where the police force only worked from 9am to 5pm?

How about if the Fire Department only had the ability to fight fires on the ground floors of buildings?

Would you fly on an airline that had only enough mechanics to service the engine, wheels, brakes and flaps on the left side of the aircraft?

Would you eat the food at a chicken restaurant that only cooked its meals half-way?

Of course not! Each of those examples represent a clear and present danger to public safety. None of those instances would be allowed to stand for long.

Yet this is the same exact situation we are being presented with in regards to the Trenton Water Works. We’ve known for years that the utility had staffing issues, and had been undermanned for most if not all of the last ten years. But now we know, in the words of the City of Trenton’s own consultants, as repeated back to it by the State of New Jersey’s Environmental Commissioner, that the Water Works “has only one-third of the Staff Needed to Operate its System.”

Think about that, again, and think about those other examples. The water we in the City, and throughout the County, drink, cook with, bathe in, and give to our children is potentially unsafe at any time, because of critical and long-standing staffing issues. We’ve had service disruptions, and lead advisories, and other problems, several times in 2017 alone. The situation is a clear and present danger.

One thing is apparent to me this morning, even before processing all of the other documents I’ve already received from NJDEP and awaiting from the City. I can understand the existence of intermittent and temporary staffing shortages in any organization, from time to time. Complex technical work can only be performed by experienced and highly trained and licensed personnel. The loss of a key person, or two, or even half a dozen, can take a lot of time and effort to replace. I get that.

But for the Trenton Water Works to be missing two-thirds of the “staff needed to operate its system” can ONLY be the result of years of deliberate policy decisions and administrative action on the part of TWW management and the Administrations of the City of Trenton over the last ten years, not least including the present one.

From this first document disclosed here today, we read that the current situation dates back to at least 2009, when Douglas Palmer was Mayor – and Eric Jackson was Director of Public Works. Back then, Mayor Palmer was accused of hollowing out the Water Works in preparation for selling its suburban assets to the New Jersey American Water Company, a plan overwhelmingly defeated by voters in a 2010 referendum.

It’s clear now that the hollowing-out, and de-staffing of the Water Works has continued since then to the present day. Now we are at the point, the point of a metaphorical gun held by the State of New Jersey, being compelled to turn over management of the Water Works because Trenton has fucked it all up, and can’t begin to fix it, as demonstrated by its failure over the last couple of years or so – under the current Jackson Administration – to take the required and agreed-upon actions to start to address the situation. This failure has surely been aided and abetted by the fact that over the last several months, an extremely crucial period of time seeing several water safety incidents and increased scrutiny from the State, the City’s Director of Public Works has been Merkle Cherry, an individual with Zero prior Public Works Experience. Not the best management decision made by Mayor Jackson, but it’s only been one of so, so many.

This is the beginning of a long, sordid and complicated tale, no doubt. However it ends, I certainly hope it ends with nothing less than the restoration of trust in the safety of our water supply. Because we sure as hell have no confidence in its safety right now!

I will finish by mentioning the other major recent crisis and scandal with a city’s water supply, in Flint, Michigan. In that town, poor government policy and actions, negligence, abuse and corruption led to a public safety crisis still unfolding. Lawsuits have been filed, and government officials are being indicted. People will go to jail for Flint, that is going to happen.

It’s way too early in this crisis – and yes, that’s exactly what it is! – to predict where events and disclosures will lead. But, last night, as I read this document, spitting mad, I thought that Eric Jackson and the current members of Council are probably working and planning on their re-election efforts right now.

My first reaction is that they should be worried about going to jail, the whole lot of them.

Time to lawyer up, guys!

Ten years of bad decisions are coming home to roost. Screwing with the City’s – hell, much of Mercer County’s – water supply won’t and can’t be excused.

Anyone on the City and yes, State level, who over the last ten years (at least that part of them covered by the statute of limitations) planned, oversaw or had knowledge of or other wise enabled the actions that led to Trenton Water Works having “only one-third of the Staff Needed to Operate its System,” raising “significant concerns regarding its ability to reliably supply drinking water to its customers on a continuous basis without adverse incidentshad better start talking to lawyers, because there will be hell to pay for this.

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