The state’s public utilities board wants more teeth in its ability to enforce water quality regulations, including the capability to compel the merger of smaller, inefficient water utilities with larger ones, and to levy harsher fines on companies that violate regulations.
Lawmakers want to know why such a high level of local governments are not compliant with the Water Quality Accountability Act – a 2017 measure enacted to ensure every water utility system is compliant with state and federal water safety laws. To that end, they heard from the BPU and state environmental regulators on why there has been such subpar compliance with the measure during a Tuesday meeting of the the Senate Community and Urban Affairs Committee.
“I think the consumer will be served better if a lot of the smaller companies, these mom and pop ones in particular, could be absorbed by the larger companies,” Board of Public Utilities President Joe Fiordaliso told lawmakers Tuesday morning.
The Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees the rollout of the Water Quality Accountability Act, said that 271 of 287 water utilities submitted forms to the agency showing they complied with state and federal water quality rules.
Of that amount, according to DEP Deputy Commissioner Debbie Mans, 33 forms were signed off by individuals other than the mayor or chief executive officer, which is required by law. Another 46 forms were approved by individuals who might not have had the authority to issue the sign-off.
“In order for a municipal system to be sold to a larger… investor-owned company, you need a referendum… that’s the problem… the referendum keeps getting defeated,” Fiordaliso said.
A referendum will take place in Edison on Sept. 10. Residents there will determine whether large swatches of control of the township’s water and sewage should be handed over to utilities giant Suez Water.
Fiordaliso’s proposal was a hard sell to Sen. Troy Singleton, D-7th District, chair of the Senate Community and Urban Affairs Committee.
Singleton admitted he was surprised by the BPU head’s wish list of compelled consolidation. “That was news to me,” he told reporters following the Senate hearing. “If folks can’t keep up with their infrastructure that they are charged to man, then we need to find ways to either get them to do it, or force them onto another industry.”
Fiordaliso argued the utilities agency needs the ability to levy much larger fines against water and other utilities.
“The amount that we fine them… for mishaps that they do is almost laughable,” Fiordaliso said. “We want people to abide by the regulations that we have.”
Fiordaliso maintained his agency does not directly handle the utilities regulated by the 2017 measure. Nonetheless, the BPU would support and collaborate on efforts by lawmakers and environmental regulators to hold water utilities to much more stringent water quality laws.
“Our jurisdiction includes investor-owned utilities and limited jurisdiction over… any municipal system that also serves 1,000 or more billed customers living outside the utilities’ municipal boundaries,” Fiordaliso said in his prepared remarks.