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State's Efforts to Curb Lead in School Drinking Water Get Off to Slow Start

No one disagrees that lead abatement is a necessary response, but there’s little agreement on how to pay for it

water fountain

A trio of bills to set aside funds to help schools remove lead from drinking water cleared a legislative committee yesterday, but they appear to face uncertain prospects for winning final approval.

The Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee voted out both bills, but only narrowly. They mark the first concerted legislative response to the discovery last month that forced more than 30 schools in Newark to switch to bottled water after high levels of lead were detected.

While there was unanimous sentiment that the state needs to step in and lend fiscal assistance to Newark and other schools likely to face identical problems, there were considerable concerns raised whether the funding mechanisms to do so are appropriate.

One of the bills (A-2281) would establish a deposit on plastic, glass, and aluminum bottles and cans and dedicate three-quarters of that money to a new lead-abatement program in all schools and communities. The other (A-3583) would divert $20 million for lead projects from the state’s Clean Energy Fund, which is financed by surcharges on consumers’ gas and electric bills.

The so-called bottle bill, a proposal debated fruitlessly by the Legislature for nearly three decades, only won approval from some of those voting for it to kick off discussion on how to fund lead-abatement projects. Beyond questions over whether it would raise enough money for the problem, some feared it would devastate municipal recycling efforts.

“So not only do consumers have to pay $2.40 more for a case of beer, but municipalities will have to raise their property taxes to make up for the lost revenue of curbside recycling programs,’’ said Assemblyman Scott Rumana (R-Passaic), who voted against the bill.

The other measure, which would divert Clean Energy funds, also sparked opposition, most notably both from the business community and from Stefanie Brand, director of the state Division of Rate Counsel. In a letter to the committee, Brand called the goal well-intentioned, but described the funding source as “unworkable and inequitable.’’

The committee also approved a third bill (A-3539) that would require regular testing for lead statewide in all public and private schools in New Jersey. The bill did not project the cost of statewide testing, nor did it identify a source of funding.

There was broad support both for the testing requirement and for money to fix any problems with lead fixtures in the schools from education groups, environmentalists, labor, and others.

But even proponents noted the bills only partly address the issues facing New Jersey as it confronts an aging water infrastructure. Lead, a problem that causes serious development, behavior, and learning problems to children exposed to it, is found in drinking water from old lead service lines, fixtures, and solder in plumbing.

“New Jersey’s water infrastructure is in dire need of funds,’’ said Jennifer Coffey, executive director of the Association of New Jersey Environment Commissions, which supported the bills. “It just begins to address the water infrastructure issues.’’

Still, the bottle bill had its backers. “It’s a proactive step to face a large problem we have in New Jersey,’’ said Analilia Mejia, executive director of the New Jersey Working Families Alliance, noting it would address the lead issue as well as the litter problem facing the state. Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, too, endorsed the legislation.

“This is a great first step,’’ agreed Kim Gaddy, a former Newark school board member with a child in the school system. “Our children cannot afford to be poisoned.’’

The Christie administration has not identified any funding source to help Newark and other schools deal with potential lead problems, a failure that angered Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex), a member of the committee. “Where is he?’’ he asked, referring to the governor.

Late yesterday, the governor's office announced he will hold a press conference on lead remediation and containment this afternoon in the State House.

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