Salem, New Jersey residents to decide who should deliver their drinking water

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There’s been a competitive door-knocking campaign in the small city of Salem, New Jersey.

Volunteers have handed out leaflets and assembled yard signs throughout the South Jersey community to prepare for Election Day.

The effort was not for a political candidate, however, but for a battle over water.

When Salem residents head to the polls on Tuesday, they will vote whether the town should sell its water system to New Jersey American Water, a subsidiary of the largest investor-owned water utility in the U.S.

On Election Day, residents in Salem, New Jersey, will decide whether the city should sell its water to an investor-owned utility. (Zoe Read/WHYY)

If successful, the sale would become one of more than two dozen similar transactions by investor-owned utilities across the region in the past five years.

Salem city officials say they’re struggling to make ends meet — industry has left, and the city’s main drag is lined with boarded-up vacant buildings. The city is facing an $11 million debt, and officials say they have no choice but to sell their drinking water.

Broadway in Salem, N.J. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

They’re also grappling with toxic PFAS chemicals, which could set the city back $1 million to clean up. The “forever chemicals,” found in numerous household products and firefighting foam, are linked to serious health problems, including some cancers. Last year, one well in Salem contained PFAS levels above state standards and has been shut down ever since.

“PFAS can show up any time, anywhere. And if it happens again before we get this filtration system on, it’s going to be a bigger issue,” said Salem Mayor Jody Veler.

But residents such as Janice Roots don’t buy it — arguing constituents shouldn’t be forced to pay for the city’s “poor financing decisions.”

“This has nothing to do with the PFAS in our drinking water. They don’t give a crap whether the PFAS problem gets fixed or not,” said Roots, who is leading a grassroots campaign against the measure. “They want to settle the debt in this city that they created.”

Janice Roots, 60, is leading a community effort to stop the sale of Salem’s water system. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Roots, with the help of nonprofit Food & Water Watch, collected 250 resident signatures to petition the city to place the decision on Tuesday’s ballot.

The referendum has led to a campaign that rivals any small-town political election. A large billboard promoting the sale greets drivers as they enter the city of only about 5,300 residents. The debate has become so heated, some residents against the measure allege their yard signs have been stolen.

Those in favor of the sale believe New Jersey American Water will provide clean drinking water. Those opposed worry the company will raise rates in Salem, where the median household yearly income is $26,000.

“I’m not making a whole lot of money,” said Otto Batemen Sr., 78, whose sole income comes from performing in a rhythm and blues band. “And with the groceries, rent — and then you got these stores around here just pushing up prices because they want to.”

Otho Bateman Sr., 78, hopes to help stop the sale of Salem’s water system to a private company, which many residents fear will lead to higher water bills. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

A history of financial struggles

Mayor Veler said the city’s financial woes began long before she was elected in 2022. Around 2010, the city took out a state loan for a water system that would, in part, transition the supply from well to surface water. However, the system failed, which led to a settlement with EG Power & Water and other contractors for a poorly designed filtration system.

“The city has a long history — and I’m not blaming anybody in the past, everybody made the best decisions that they could make. But we’ve been unable to manage this system for quite some time,” Veler said.

The city of Salem, N.J., is working to privatize its water department. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The city’s water and sewer system also has a deficit, which City Administrator Ben Angeli blames on decreasing commercial customers. He said the water system also needs significant costly upgrades, such as refurbishing its water tower, building a PFAS filtration system, and replacing aging water meters.

The city is not alone — acquisitions of municipal water supplies by investor-owned utilities are increasing across the U.S., utility experts say. Infrastructure is aging, and many municipalities can’t afford the upkeep required to meet drinking water standards, or address the impacts of climate change such as increased flooding and drought.

A 2018 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report estimates public water systems across the U.S. need $472.6 billion in infrastructure investment over the next two decades.

  • November 6, 2023
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