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Opinion: Let Flint Strike Sparks to Address Water-Supply Problems in NJ

Flint is a failure of responsibility, ethics, and morality. Can the unacceptable happen to our water-supply systems?

Daniel J. Van Abs
Daniel J. Van Abs

Let’s start with the fundamentals about the water-supply debacle in Flint, MI, where water customers have been exposed to completely unacceptable levels of lead, a neurotoxin. Lead can leach out of water-supply lines within and leading to buildings from the municipal system, and from lead used to join pipe sections both in buildings and in the municipal system. Our nation’s water-supply professionals -- operators, engineers, chemists, planners, managers, and regulators -- are fully aware of methods necessary to protect customers from lead in the water supply. There is absolutely no valid reason for what happened in Flint. There may be excuses (there always are), but none justify the exposure of that community to such lead levels, including children whose brain functions could be permanently impaired.

It is worth a moment to reflect on lead in our environment. I grew up when lead was used in house paint and gasoline. Lead solder was used to join pipes in homes. Eventually, lead in paint and gasoline was banned, and newer homes no longer used lead plumbing or solder. The result is that on average environmental levels and blood levels of lead have dropped, a lot.

The problem is that lead isn’t gone everywhere. Lead paint in old homes is still a major way that children (especially in poor areas) are exposed. The lead-blood levels in Flint were increased above levels that already reflected exposure to lead paints, a double harm to children. Lead paint removal is expensive for homeowners (both families and landlords). While some progress has been made, it hasn’t been anywhere near enough.

Lead also still exists in the plumbing of old homes and in old municipal water lines, which is part of Flint’s problem. The federal government adopted requirements for lead (and copper, another harmful metal). Utilities must test tap water and take action when lead or copper exceeds certain levels. This requirement is not new, and the treatment techniques are well known to any competent professional. The treatment for lead and copper essentially coats the inside of the pipes so that the water doesn’t come in contact with the pipes and leach out the metals. It works, and it isn’t even all that expensive.

Given that we know about the problem and the solution, what happened in Flint? While some details are not yet out, we are seeing a clear example of expedience overcoming accepted practice, and then delay and obfuscation preventing quick responses to a problem that never should have occurred. I’m expecting to see a story any day now, in which an engineering report specifically noted the aggressive nature of Flint River water, recommended treatment, and was ignored. That’s the “good” scenario, which is bad enough. The bad scenario would be if no such report were ever generated, which would mean total collapse of the regulatory system for Flint. Damned if they did, and damned if they didn’t.

Let’s bring this back to New Jersey. What are the risks of a problem like this here, and why?

Several issues contributed to what happened in Flint. Most directly, the city was switching water-supply sources, from Detroit’s water system to an intake in Lake Huron, as a way to reduce costs. That intake wasn’t ready and so they decided to use the Flint River as an interim source. Any time a water supply utility changes water sources, the utility needs to be sure that the new water isn’t going to cause chemical, physical, or operational problems. Flint River is very different from Lake Huron, so a study done for the lake isn’t sufficient to address issues from the river.

In New Jersey, we have a number of examples in which utilities shifted water sources in the past 30 years. In our water-supply-critical areas in the Monmouth County and Camden regions, utilities needed to shift in part or entirely from ground water to surface water. In other areas, local water supplies ran short in growing municipalities, which contracted for water from neighboring systems, often from different water sources. Short-term shifts can also happen, such as during droughts. I am personally aware of many such shifts where the effects of the new water were specifically investigated and resolved. Our regulations should be sufficient to address this issue.

A second issue in Flint is the age of the municipal system and of the homes, schools, and other buildings. They have old municipal lines that used lead at pipeline joints, and they have thousands of old buildings with lead pipes, lead solder, or both. What we hear from Flint is a demand that all the municipal pipelines be replaced, at a very high cost. I’m not hearing much about buildings, and yet they can be an enormous part of the problem. Even if every municipal pipeline in Flint is replaced, treatment will still be required to protect people from the lead and copper in their own plumbing.

New Jersey is no different. Our historic urban areas and early suburbs have exactly the same conditions. Replacing municipal water lines is very costly, but the pipelines in those areas are so old that they need to be replaced anyway, to avoid high water losses or system failure. As bad as the Flint situation is, people might be even more outraged if no water were available at all. Replacement costs, in Flint and in New Jersey, are coming regardless and will improve both public health and system integrity.

Replacing the plumbing in old buildings will cost the building owners a lot. It will be a very slow process, tied to rates of redevelopment, home improvements, household income levels, rent levels, and other factors. Our slow response to lead paint tells us that replacement of plumbing requires either new mandates or major new funding, or both. Treatment will be required until essentially all buildings have gone through a retrofit.

A third issue in Flint was clearly a failure of responsibility. The people in charge of the system and the people in charge of regulating the system failed to properly protect the public. Some of them have lost their jobs. Others mostly likely will, and should. The courts will be asked to award damages, which seems entirely reasonable for people who have been harmed. Having been a regulator, I know that some administrations are open to hearing about problems, and others don’t want bad news to be public. Many other issues can come into the equation, including a sense that “those people don’t matter.” So, on top of a failure of responsibility can be a failure of ethics and morality.

New Jersey is not immune to these types of failures. In too many parts of the state, our water-supply and wastewater infrastructure have not been maintained properly for decades. We have been unwilling to force the issue, either locally or statewide. The priority has been and in many places remains keeping current costs down, no matter what the long-term costs. Let there be no doubt. Most of the costs for maintaining our water utilities will be borne by their customers.

What happened (and is still happening) in Flint is a travesty. What happens in New Jersey should be a renewed commitment to water-utility management, combined with methods to help poor households deal with the resulting rate shocks. Let Flint strike sparks that bring better efforts in New Jersey.

Daniel J. Van Abs is currently Associate Professor of Practice for Water, Society and Environment at the Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences. He has spent more than 30 years as a professional, manager, and advocate in the fields of water resources, watershed and regional environmental management. The views expressed in this essay are solely those of the author.

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