State at Beginning of Long Struggle to Purify Drinking Water in NJ Schools

DEP says it will be months to get a sense of size of problem, then hard work of remediation remains

With more Newark schools found last week to have elevated lead levels in their water, a top state environmental official said the process of identifying and remediating the problem not just in Newark but statewide is sure to be a lengthy one.

Daniel Kennedy, the assistant commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection, said the vast majority of New Jersey’s nearly 3,000 public schools now do not fall under the state’s testing requirements. Only about 250 schools with their own water supplies — typically through wells — are regulated by the state.

Newark Public Schools district is among the unregulated, and Kennedy said it has taken an extensive effort by the district working with the DEP to start sampling and identifying the problems. And as more sampling is completed and more results come out, including eight more Newark buildings identified last week, Kennedy said it could be months to get a complete picture.

“It’s something that will be ongoing for weeks and months and will not go away overnight,” Kennedy said, speaking at an NJ Spotlight roundtable on water infrastructure on Friday in Trenton.

Statewide, the prospects are daunting, he added, given the age of New Jersey’s school buildings in cities and suburbs alike.

“I personally don’t think this breaks urban-suburban,” he said. “There are old buildings throughout the state … New Jersey is an older state with older buildings.”

But Kennedy also stressed that while lead in the water is clearly a public health issue, it is not the predominant cause of lead poisoning and should not be portrayed as such.

“Lead in water is not the leading cause of lead issues with sensitive populations,” he said. “When you try to draw a direct line [from poisoning] to water issues, I think that is dangerous and perhaps inappropriate. You have to understand the comprehensive issues that lead to lead exposure, and water is a small part of that conversation.”

[related]The comments come as public attention continues to rise on the issue of lead in schools’ water. The Assembly environment committee is scheduled to meet today to begin considering a bill that would require testing for lead in school drinking water in every school in the state.

The co-chairs of the Joint Committee for the Public Schools on Friday also called on state Education Commissioner David Hespe to unilaterally order testing in the schools.

“We have an obligation as a state to ensure the safety of children, particularly when they are in the care of our schools,” said the letter from state Sen. Ronald Rice and Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (both D-Essex).

“As the co-chairs of the committee charged with oversight of the public schools, we are asking the commissioner to order immediate testing for lead in every school in the state,” they wrote.

“That is the only way to know the extent of the issue we are dealing with and to ensure action is taken to protect against the health hazards that can result from lead exposure.”

Others speaking at the NJ Spotlight roundtable on Friday agreed the process and costs to the state will be weighty.

“The notion of tearing a building apart to replace lead lines, you’re talking about enormous expense,” said Daniel Van Abs, an associate research professor at Rutgers’ School of Environmental and Biological Sciences. “I don’t know how much, but I do know that this state has a tendency of robbing Peter to pay Paul.” (Van Abs is a regular contributor to NJ Spotlight.)

“But we must recognize we are an old state, one of the original 13 colonies, and there are a lot of old issues coming back at us, and they will cost money,” he said. “The question is will we pay for them, and the answer is “yes,” we will pay for them. It is whether we will pay now or will we let them fester. But we will pay for them, we have no choice.”