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Will State Pay $20M to Get the Lead Out of Newark’s Water Infrastructure?

Money could be found by diverting dollars from the state’s Clean Energy Fund, a financing redirection used in the past

Assemblywoman Grace Spencer (D-Essex)
Credit: Martin Griff
State Assemblywoman Grace Spencer (D-Essex)

The chairwoman of a key legislative committee is pushing a new bill that would provide $20 million to fund improvements to the city of Newark’s water system in an attempt to deal with high levels of lead in at least 30 schools in the district.

The legislation (A-3583), sponsored by Assemblywoman Grace Spencer (D-Essex), would divert money from the state’s Clean Energy Fund to make the necessary improvements to the city’s water-supply infrastructure. Spencer heads the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee.

The proposal is the latest initiative put forward to address problems of elevated levels of lead found in water at Newark schools, which led the district to switch to bottled water at the facilities when the problem was made public earlier this month.

While Newark and state environmental officials have not pinpointed the source of the contamination, both have said the source of supply -- the city’s water system -- is free of lead. The high levels of the toxic metal were a result of old lead plumbing and lead solder in fixtures from the streets to the buildings, according to officials.

Finding lead in the schools’ water focused new attention on the state’s efforts to control childhood exposure to the contaminant, which can damage the nervous system and cause lifelong learning and health issues.

“This bill would provide critical funding to help solve one of the most important environmental problems facing the state -- the decay of critical infrastructure that delivers drinking water to one of our most populous cities,’’ Spencer said.

Her bill would shift money to fix the infrastructure from the Clean Energy Fund, which is financed by a surcharge on consumer gas and electric bills. Lawmakers and the executive branch often divert money from the fund to for other purposes. This year, it is being tapped to pay $112 million in energy costs at state buildings and New Jersey Transit.

Sen. Kip Bateman (R-Somerset) also has proposed using $20 million in clean-energy money to fund water infrastructure improvements, but his proposal is not limited to Newark. Other school systems, such as Camden, also have had to switch to bottled water after finding lead in their supplies.

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka’s suggestions to put a 10-cent deposit on plastic bottles or add a tax on plastic bags to fund improvements to the water system have been proposed in pending bills in the Legislature.

Beyond using the Clean Energy Fund, Spencer urged city officials to apply for money from the state’s Environmental Infrastructure Trust, which furnishes funds for various water-supply and water-quality improvement projects.

“The fact that the presence of lead was detected at several dozen different sources within the school district points to the need to address the state of our infrastructure,’’ Spencer said.

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