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Wednesday, July 17, 2024


Water is Safe, Cape May Says


By Vince Conti

CAPE MAY – The City of Cape May is in a struggle with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) over whether the water distributed by the city’s water department met recently changed state pH guidelines for a period of months in 2021, guidelines the city says were never properly distributed to the right municipal officials. 

The debate involves an order by the DEP Nov. 8 that the city needed to issue what is known as a tier 2 notification to residents stating that the city was out of compliance for at least 62 days during the first six-month monitoring period in 2021. The city had the notification letters prepared but never issued them. 

“We were not going to scare the public over something that has no public health implications,” said city Water and Sewer Superintendent Robert Cummiskey. Instead, Cummiskey said, “We decided to fight the issue.”  

What Led to the Issue? 

The city water department distributes drinking water to the city itself, West Cape May, Cape May Point, portions of Lower Township, and the Coast Guard Base. The department is responsible for meeting a wide range of continuous testing requirements to ensure that the water distributed poses no health hazards. 

Among the state standards is something called the “copper/lead rule,” which deals less with copper and/or lead contamination directly from the water source and more with the pH range of water that enters the distribution system from the city’s water treatment plant.  

What is at issue between the city and the state is the range of the pH in the water at the point of entry into the distribution system as shown by independent laboratory testing over a given period. 

What is pH and Why is it Important? 

The pH measure in water shows how acidic or alkaline the water is. The pH range goes from zero to 14, with seven being neutral, less than seven is increasingly acidic, and above seven the number is increasingly alkaline. The pH of water is an important measure of water quality.  

By maintaining the proper pH level in the water distribution system, the city’s water department is reducing the likelihood of lead or copper leaching into the water from pipes, faucets, and service lines before it comes out of the tap. The state sets an allowable range for the pH of water pushed into the distribution system at its point of entry from the processing plant. 

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, too high a pH level in the water can produce a bitter taste, lead to water-using appliances building up deposits, and depress the effectiveness of chlorine. Too low a pH level can facilitate the leaching of metals into the water. 

The state adopts its pH measure range from the federal government and incorporates it by reference into state regulations. 

State Regulations Changed 

DEP changed the range of pH for what is acceptable in the utility’s water as it enters the distribution system. During the six months from Jan. 1 to June 30, the Cape May plant, according to Cummiskey, operated without being aware of the change in the range of pH levels. 

Cummiskey, who took over as director Nov. 1, says correspondence from the state went to a previous superintendent and a previous city manager in error. The city says it updated the state data with the appointment of new individuals. The state is asking for proof. 

Whatever the mix-up, Cummiskey says the quality of the water was never compromised. He argues that putting out the public notification letter would have had the effect of needlessly concerning the public over a non-issue.  

What Happens Now? 

Cummiskey says that the city is still engaged in a dispute with the DEP. He says the city’s position is they were not properly informed of a change in pH regulations.  

If the state moves to fine the city for not issuing the public tier 2 notification, Cummiskey says he is prepared to fight that, as well. When asked if he has involved the city solicitor in the dispute, he said he had not yet done so. 

Meanwhile, the water is being distributed in accordance with the state’s current pH range.   

To contact Vince Conti, email 

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