Democrats Demand Immediate Lead Testing for Water in All NJ Schools

Money to update water infrastructure -- estimated at $20 million -- would be siphoned from state Clean Energy Fund

The state Senate’s Democratic leadership continues to press for statewide testing for lead in the drinking water of all schools, saying it would tap the Clean Energy Fund to help protect students.

State Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Sens. Ronald Rice and Teresa Ruiz (both D-Essex) yesterday further detailed their position, calling for immediate lead testing in all schools — public and private — and twice a year thereafter.

The proposal calls for $3 million a year in state money for testing, plus $20 million from the Clean Energy Fund that would be available for districts to install and update filters.

But the lawmakers acknowledged that this may be just the start of the state’s funding obligation; testing could lead to the need for further remediation that could cost tens of millions of dollars, if not more.

“We are talking about something that as we get information, it is becoming more and more a crisis,” Sweeney said at a State House press conference. “Lead in our paint, lead in our water. Our children are being poisoned and it is something that needs to be addressed now.”

Rice, who first started pressing for lead-abatement measures more than a decade ago, said, “It shouldn’t be a question when it comes to our water, but it will take a lot of money and effort long term.”

Public pressure comes as more revelations emerge as to the extent of the lead problem in the state. The initial outcry came after it was disclosed that half of Newark’s school buildings had elevated lead levels, leading to the immediate shutting down of the water supply to those schools.

But the situation in Newark only led to more revelations concerning elevated lead levels in Jersey City and Camden, where bottled water has been supplied to students for years because of the lead fears.

Meanwhile, school advocates are arguing that the state is responsible for addressing the water infrastructure in those three state-run districts, as well as in others that fall under the Abbott v. Burke school equity rulings.

David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, said he sent a letter to state Education Commissioner David Hespe, demanding that the Christie administration and its School Development Authority immediately undertake surveys of Newark’s school buildings for any emerging needs.

After that, the administration must provide the resources necessary to address those needs, which in many cases will require pipes and other water infrastructure to be updated or replaced. Officials have said the contamination is not in the city’s water supply but in the pipes and faucets through which the water travels.

“A failure to do so by the [state] and the SDA, in the face of compelling evidence of such conditions, would constitute an egregious violation of the state’s constitutional and statutory obligations,” Sciarra wrote.

Neither Hespe nor the administration have yet to comment on the pending bill or the ELC’s requests.