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Op-Ed: It's Not Just Lead -- New Jersey’s Drinking-Water Crisis

New Jersey’s water-infrastructure problem will take years and billions to fix. But it’s time to at least develop a plan of action

david pringle
David Pringle

It was gloomy both outside and inside the State House last week, as legislators struggled to balance budget shortfalls in almost every category from transportation and pensions to education and Atlantic City.

In the midst of this sinking ship is drinking water. Lead in the drinking water of the state’s older schools is just the tip of the iceberg, and Gov. Chris Christie’s response to date -- to deny, deflect, and delay -- is woefully inadequate and consistent with his administration’s overall policies to weaken water protections.

The New Jersey State Assembly and Senate had originally been scheduled to convene their annual hearings today and Thursday on the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection’s budget, but today's hearing has been postponed. Still, Commissioner Robert Martin has a lot to answer for.

DEP's own data shows that over 90 percent of New Jersey waters fail at least one water-quality standard.

The state’s Water Supply Master Plan, written in 1996 before most people had e-mail, is more outdated than VCRs. Christie and Martin have repeatedly made and betrayed promises to get it done. Various drafts have been available for years and Martin’s even refused to release those.

On top of that, newly proposed dirty, dangerous, and unneeded gas and oil pipelines could further erode New Jersey’s water resources. The DEP supports two pipelines through the Pinelands, where 17 trillion gallons of pristine water flow through the Kirkwood-Cohansey aquifer. The agency is noncommittal on two others that threaten drinking water supplies: PennEast crosses critical streams in Hunterdon County, and the Pilgrim Oil pipeline travels over aquifers and by rivers that provide drinking water for much of Bergen, Essex, and Passaic counties.

Christie can protect our drinking water by denying the water-quality permits for these pipelines. That is exactly what New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo did with a very similar pipeline two weeks ago on Earth Day.

That’s a good example of when you’re in a hole and want to get out, the initial best course of action is to stop digging. The Christie administration, however, just keeps digging deeper.

The DEP last week proposed rule changes to allow over 1,000 units of additional development to the Highlands' core contiguous forest, chopping up the exact rare interior habitat crucial to drinking-water supplies that the Highlands Act was passed to protect.

Last June, the DEP proposed weakening changes to the state’s flood-hazard rules to such an extent that several federal agencies and the New Jersey League of Municipalities cried “foul” and prompted a bipartisan majority in the Senate and Assembly to pass legislation prohibiting it.

So where does Christie stand on lead in drinking water? It depends on the day, and how much media coverage it’s generating.

The governor’s position has evolved quickly over the past month. He started out denying there was much of a problem. Then he tried to deflect it by stating he supported lead-paint mitigation, a very important cause, but one he had vetoed a few months before and previously repeatedly defunded. Finally, last week Christie acknowledged lead in drinking water is, in fact, a problem. He called for the Legislature to fund testing and disclosure. But he delayed implementation until Fiscal Year 2017.

In the meantime, Christie will simply let them drink lead.

Ingestion of lead causes brain damage. We don’t know how many New Jersey children have been affected by drinking lead-contaminated water, but one thing is clear, Christie has abdicated his responsibility, and the Legislature must fill the void. This week’s DEP budget hearings would be a good place to start.

New Jersey’s water-infrastructure problem will take years and billions to fix. But it’s time to at least develop a plan of action that strengthens not weakens flood-hazard and drinking-water protections. If the governor refuses to take this path, the Legislature must block him by exercising its veto power.

New Jersey’s problems didn’t develop overnight, and they won’t be solved quickly. But we have to stop making them worse. That will take honest work by the governor, diligent oversight by the Legislature, and effective advocacy by non-profit environmental groups like Clean Water Action.

David Pringle is Clean Water Action’s NJ Campaign Director and was appointed by the Assembly Speaker as a public-health expert to the Drinking Water Quality Institute from 2002-2010.

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