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Op-Ed: Underneath NJ — an Unhealthy, Costly, Disgusting Problem

What we need right now is a comprehensive strategy for improving our water and sewer infrastructure

briant
Robert Briant Jr.

Underneath New Jersey, we have a festering problem. Because we cannot see it, we are less inclined to discuss it. But it is there. This problem is unhealthy, costly, and frankly, downright disgusting. This problem is that we have thousands of miles of century-old water and sewer lines whose shelf life is set to expire any day.  If that happens, we, the residents of New Jersey, are in for big trouble.

There has been more and more news about our water and sewer infrastructure over the past few months. But that is only because the problems continue to get worse. What New Jersey needs right now is a comprehensive strategy for improving our water and sewer infrastructure to ensure we deliver clean water to the men, women, children, and businesses of our state. 

This crisis has already emerged in areas across New Jersey. Newark has had several dozen schools whose water lead concentration level tested above 15 parts per billion. That is the level at which the federal Environmental Protection Agency recommends corrective action be taken. In Camden, there are schools whose water fountains have been shut down for years.  Students and staff instead must use bottled water machines.  It costs the school district $75,000 a year just to provide bottled water and cups.

Last year, I wrote about these problems and said it “is not hyperbolic to say that more situations like those in Newark and Camden will occur if we don’t act now.” Unfortunately, I was correct. Since then, high lead levels have been found in the drinking water at Rowan University, Morristown Medical Center, and Englewood Hospital. And those are just a few examples. It seems as if every day we hear about a new school or public venue that has tested positive for high levels of lead.

These examples also show that this problem is not just relegated to our urban centers. In 2014, the state Department of Health found that hundreds of water systems throughout the state had traces of arsenic or nitrates in the water. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes Salem, Cumberland, Essex, and Mercer Counties had the highest numbers of children impacted by lead poisoning. 

It might seem obvious, but the health risks of lead in drinking water are extremely serious. As the World Health Organization notes, “Young children are particularly vulnerable to the toxic effects of lead and can suffer profound and permanent adverse health effects, particularly affecting the development of the brain and nervous system.”  

When aging infrastructure is not poisoning our drinking water, it is creating havoc and waste.  Numerous New Jersey municipalities have water mains — which deliver treated drinking water — leaking so badly that up to 60 percent of the treated water never reaches customers. The National Resources Defense Council estimates that 130 million gallons of treated drinking water are being lost each day in New Jersey because of leaky, outdated infrastructure. Think of the wasted money and resources piling up every day due to our failure to address this problem.

I noted earlier that this problem — in addition to being unhealthy and costly — is disgusting. What did I mean by that? Well, our sewer systems are so old and outdated that in many areas across the state, even a light rainfall can result in raw sewage washing into waterways like the Passaic River and Raritan Bay. NJ Future estimates that seven billion gallons of diluted raw sewage flows in our rivers and bays each year.   

I am proud to chair the Clean Water Construction Coalition, which helps focus national attention on the need for federal legislation to improve water and wastewater infrastructure.  We need this type of legislation nationwide. But we also need a focus here in New Jersey on how to solve this problem. As the days go by, we are only going to discover more and more problems before we come to a point of catastrophe. Let’s not wait for that day. Let’s act now.

Robert Briant Jr. is chairman of the Clean Water Construction Coalition and CEO of the Utility and Transportation Contractors Association of New Jersey.

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