"It's good to have them back," said Bill Wolfe, a former DEP official and director of New Jersey Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
But from the meeting's start, he and other advocates made clear that they would give the panel close scrutiny, fearing that industry and special interest groups would wield undue influence on its proceedings and that it would be slow to set certain maximum contaminant levels.
The board's chairman, Keith Cooper, a Rutgers University professor appointed by Gov. Christie late last month, said DEP workers had continued to assess water issues.
"Even though the Drinking Water Quality Institute did not officially meet [for years], a lot of the groundwork had been laid for some of the current studies that we're going to be looking into," he said.
The institute was charged by the DEP at the meeting with exploring maximum contaminant levels for certain perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), chemicals used to make Teflon and other water- and grease-resistant products.
The panel, at its last meeting in 2010, was considering such a regulation for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). Now, it will also review the standards for two sibling contaminants, including perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA), whose presence in Paulsboro and several other Gloucester County towns has compelled water supply shutdowns and triggered health worries.
Conversation about the toxic PFCs dominated most of the meeting as a DEP research scientist, Gloria Post, presented an overview of work done in analyzing PFCs throughout the state.
Levels of PFNA in Gloucester are the highest known in the world, Post said, and systems such as granular activated carbon filtration have been shown to treat water.
Wolfe challenged the institute to push to require such treatments throughout the state, saying they could also help remove other emerging and potentially dangerous contaminants.
Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, said the current process for setting maximum contaminant levels is too lengthy and said she feared that it could be another year before the PFC regulations are implemented.
"The residents are paying the price," she said.
Fred Sickels, acting director of the DEP's division of water supply and geoscience and a panel member, said he could not estimate how long the process would take. The institute's health effects subcommittee is set to review information and determine health-based allowable contaminant levels.
Carluccio also questioned the subcommittees' policy of inviting select representatives to present information at their private meetings.
"I think there's going to be a lot of pressure" from industry and company representatives, she said.
Carluccio and others have accused the Chemistry Council of New Jersey, a trade association, of putting pressure on the panel and the state, leading to the institute's silence for more than three years.
Steven Chranowski, the council's director of regulatory affairs, said it had "no role" in the institute's inactivity.
The DEP, for its part, has cited natural disasters - Hurricanes Irene and Sandy - and pending appointments as holding up the panel's reconvening.
Christie appointed Cooper and two other members in March, marking the board's resurgence. Two vacancies remain; it was unclear when they would be filled.
Five South Jersey towns have shut down water wells because of PFNA contamination - Paulsboro, Greenwich, East Greenwich, Woodbury, and West Deptford. A West Deptford plastics company, Solvay Specialty Polymers, is believed by officials to be the source of the contaminant.
The highest level of PFNA - a reported 150 parts per trillion - was found in Paulsboro's Well No. 7.
While the maximum allowable contaminant levels could take months to set, the DEP is also taking public comment through Thursday on an interim groundwater criterion for PFNA. Exceeding it would trigger remediation.
Chranowski, of the Chemistry Council, said the group considered the proposed interim PFNA standard for the groundwater - 20 parts per trillion - to be too stringent.
Asked for what levels would be acceptable, he said: "We're working through that, we'll be putting in comments."
The institute will likely meet again in September.