In August, after testing revealed E. coli in Jersey City’s water supply near Christ Hospital, residents were furious that they hadn’t been warned sooner.

Upset about the interval between the first positive E. coli tests, which occurred Aug. 12, and the release of a boil advisory two days later, Jersey City residents took to social media and city council meetings to blast Jersey City, the Municipal Utilities Authority, and the city’s private water provider, Suez.

Now, emails obtained by The Jersey Journal through a public records request show that the state Department of Environmental Protection shared some of their sentiments.

There were no known cases of illness from the E. coli contamination, and the DEP notes in its correspondence that “our records indicate” that the city, MUA, and Suez complied with rules about informing the public within 24 hours of a confirmed E. coli test.

But in correspondence with the MUA and Suez, DEP officials outlined “concerns” with how the agencies handled the incident.

“A lack of understanding of regulatory requirements by SUEZ, JCMUA representatives, and the municipality of Jersey City, was apparent,” a state official wrote to the two agencies in September. “This includes the public notification messaging, timeframes, and format, which is vital when addressing a public health event.”

The state agency issued two “notices of non-compliance” to the MUA and Suez for their handling of the incident. The notices, issued in October and December, cited the agencies for failing to notify “all Jersey City customers, not just (Suez’s) customers within 24 hours” and for failing to issue a notice in Spanish.

The DEP also cited the water agencies for “providing erroneous information” to Jersey City customers, specifically by telling them that the boil advisory would be lifted by Saturday, Aug. 15, while officials were still awaiting test results. The DEP could not immediately be reached for comment.

The second notice of non-compliance refers to Suez’s failure to inform residents of the violations cited under the first notice. Hudson County View reported the notices earlier.

DEP officials also wrote that communication between the MUA and Suez “did not appear to be consistent” and noted the “significant delay” in getting the boil warning to “all residents of Jersey City.”

Jersey City spokeswoman Kim Wallace-Scalcione said in an email that the city is “extremely disappointed in Suez’s failure to properly notify our residents” about the E. Coli tests.

“As the contract operator for the MUA, Suez failed the city and the community, and we have put them on notice that this is unacceptable and corrective actions must be taken to prevent these issues from ever happening again,” Wallace-Scalcione said.

The boil advisory, which occurred during New Jersey’s second-hottest summer on record while many Jersey City residents were working from home, struck a nerve with many residents and elected officials, who summoned Suez officials to a city council meeting for a hearing.

“So in summary: you’ve known the water is tainted for three days and are just now telling us,” one resident wrote on Twitter in reply to a Tweet from Suez.

“We have a lot of residents who are already anxious because of everything that seems to be happening in and around this pandemic,” Ward B Councilwoman Mira Prinz-Arey reportedly said at a September hearing with Suez. “There was no real, clear communication.”

Suez officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

The emails also reveal new details about the timeline of the incident. Suez, the Jersey City MUA, and the DEP were informed of the first positive test on Aug. 12. That same day, Suez issued “a precautionary boil warning” for Christ Hospital on the afternoon of Aug. 12 — two days before a citywide alert was issued.

Suez apparently decided against issuing a larger boil warning at the time. In an Aug. 13, 12:37 p.m. email to the DEP, Suez project manager John Hroncich wrote, “we don’t believe this is a distribution issue and did not expand the (boil warning) beyond the hospital.”

In that same Aug. 13 email, Hroncich wrote, “the Jersey City (Office of Emergency Management) is aware of the situation.”

But on Aug. 15, a day after issuing a boil advisory for the city, Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop wrote on Facebook that Suez had informed the city “yesterday morning,” meaning Aug. 14.

Hroncich, a Suez project manager, told the DEP that he informed the mayor about the confirmation around 10 a.m. on Aug. 14, some 25 minutes before the boil advisory was released. But according to an October NorthJersey.com report, Fulop was informed via email about the positive tests the night before, Aug. 13, at 10:32 p.m.

A timeline submitted by Suez to the DEP shows that MUA learned that a boil advisory would be necessary at 8:15 p.m., roughly two hours earlier than the mayor was reportedly informed — and about 14 hours before that advisory was implemented.

Wallace-Scalcione said the city acted swiftly in response to the tests.

“The fact is, the City Council conducted public hearings with Suez where it became clear that the administration acted immediately and enacted an extensive boil water alert well ahead of DEP guidelines, and there were no changes formally recommended,” she said.

Jersey City OEM

The Jersey City Office of Emergency Management at 715 Summit Ave. (Reena Rose Sibayan | The Jersey Journal)

Be safe and make sure to boil your water or consider buying a water filtration system like the AquaOx Water Filter.

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