Hurricane Sandy dealt a heavy blow to the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission plant in Newark, but the facility has largely been able to continue treating effluent pumped into the region’s waterways, a spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection said Thursday.
But federal officials also said a key indicator of the waterways’ cleanliness was still above acceptable levels, prompting a call for people to continue avoiding contact with the waters of Newark Bay and the lower Passaic and Hackensack rivers.
The PVSC serves 1.4 million customers, including in Bergen and Essex counties.
Its plant, the state’s largest consumer of electricity, experienced unprecedented flooding when the waters of the nearby Passaic River surged into Newark’s East Ward Oct. 29, leaving the facility without power.
For “about a day” immediately following Sandy, the plant was forced to release untreated sewage into area waterways, said Larry Ragonese, a spokesman for the DEP. But because many businesses and other large users were also out of operation due to the storm, the flow from customers into the plant was far lower than normal, Ragonese also said.
Since that interruption, however, primary treatment, which involves chlorinating and disinfecting wastewater, has continued.
“The PVSC has had primary treatment for almost the entire time,” Ragonese said.
But secondary treatment, a biological process used to suppress bacteria levels in the water, will not resume until giant motors submerged beneath Sandy’s floodwaters are repaired. Fixing that specialized equipment may take another few weeks, Ragonese said.
Without secondary treatment, levels of coliform bacteria from wastewater passing through outfalls in Newark and New York bays remain above so-called “action” levels.
The Record of Woodland Park*, citing federal Environmental Protection Agency data, reported Wednesday that coliform bacteria levels were at 280 per 100 milliliters of water at the juncture of the Passaic River and Newark Bay, well above the level of 14 per 100 milliliters recommended for shellfish harvesting.
Ragonese, as well as environmental groups quoted by the paper, all said people should refrain from any activity on the waterways, including boating and fishing, until after secondary treatment resumes.
Solid waste, meanwhile, has been accumulating at the plant as equipment used to dry and decontaminate it is slowly brought back on line. Two of 12 units used to treat the material, which is normally trucked from the site for final disposal, are operating again. Mobile treatment units have also been brought in.
‘They’re working diligently. We’re really pleased with their effort,” Ragonese said of the PVSC. “They’ve done everything in their power to get it up and running.”
*Correction: The Record's home community was originally misidentified.