A state advisory board has recommended creating a drinking-water regulation for a chemical found in Gloucester County water supplies, a move that could have implications for a company whose West Deptford plant is believed to be responsible for the chemical's presence.
The unanimous vote Thursday by the Drinking Water Quality Institute followed more than a year of work evaluating the unregulated and little-studied chemical.
The group's research and recommendation on perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA) will be forwarded to Environmental Protection Commissioner Bob Martin within two weeks, the institute's chairman, Keith Cooper, said Friday.
"I will urge the commissioner to move forward on this as quickly as possible," said Cooper, a Rutgers University professor in the department of biochemistry and microbiology. "There's the drinking-water concern for the populations who have been drinking" water with elevated levels of the chemical.
The DEP would have to set up a rule-making process that includes a public comment period and cost analysis before implementing the regulation, Cooper added.
Some similar potential water standards for other contaminants recommended years ago have not been proposed by the DEP. If the newly recommended regulation is acted upon, New Jersey would be the first state to regulate the chemical, and would require water purveyors to test and treat for it.
The recommended standard was strongly opposed by representatives of Solvay Specialty Polymers, the plastics company whose West Deptford plant is suspected of emitting the chemical in Gloucester County. The company - which denies responsibility for the contamination and says it stopped using perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) such as PFNA voluntarily in 2010 - contended that the panel's proposal was too high and unwarranted.
At 13 parts per trillion, the suggested maximum contaminant level for the chemical is lower than many readings in public wells in several Gloucester County towns. Paulsboro, Woodbury, West Deptford, East Greenwich, and Greenwich Township all have shut down wells because of concerns surrounding the contaminant.
While there is a paucity of studies on health effects associated with PFNA, the drinking-water group referenced a study that found developmental effects on mice exposed to the chemical.
The group also noted PFNA's relation to a sibling chemical, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). A scientific panel that examined that chemical, in response to communities exposed to emissions from a West Virginia plant, found it had a "probable link" to kidney cancer, thyroid disease, and other health issues.
In challenging the New Jersey drinking-water group's proposal, Solvay representatives maintained that the panel's findings consisted of uncertainties and relied on flawed science.
Experts hired on behalf of Solvay submitted reports and testified before the panel Thursday, saying it put forward too stringent a standard for a chemical whose health effects on humans are not clear. A toxicologist found "it is premature to develop any regulatory standard for PFNA at this time," according to Solvay.
Cooper said the institute's recommendation was "based on the current science and the information we have on the occurrence within the state."
Solvay has taken steps to understand the nature and extent of the spread. Late last year, it agreed to pay for a filtration system for a Paulsboro well after the borough threatened a lawsuit.
Bill Wolfe, director of New Jersey Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said that if approved, the drinking-water standard would generate a groundwater regulation that could force Solvay to clean contaminated groundwater.
And the regulation, if enacted, could become a benchmark for rules in other states - and the possibly the federal Environmental Protection Agency. "The number," Wolfe said, "becomes significant for Solvay."