State’s 3,000 Public Schools to Begin Testing for Lead in Water

Gov. Chris Christie’s directive puts start date for testing this coming September

With an increasing number of New Jersey schools detecting lead in their water, Gov. Chris Christie yesterday ordered all of the state’s 3,000 public schools to begin testing their water for the contaminant, starting this September. (The directive does not apply to private or parochial schools.)

In issuing the directive, the governor also urged the Legislature to include $10 million in next year’s state budget to pay for the testing program, as well as requiring districts to notify parents when unsafe levels of lead are found in their systems.

Perhaps most importantly, Christie lowered the standard the state uses for identifying children at risk of lead poisoning to the level recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a more stringent criterion that better protects those most vulnerable to exposure.

Christie’s announcement comes after the disclosure that 30 schools in Newark and elsewhere in the state found unsafe levels of lead in their water, a problem that spurred legislative initiatives to require statewide testing that Christie initially balked at because of the unknown costs.

After conferring with various agencies, including the departments of health, education, and environmental protection, Christie said the $10 million appropriation set aside for statewide testing should cover the costs.

“I think we have come to what is a smart but also aggressive way of dealing with concerns any parent in the state might have about lead exposure to folks, but children in particular,’’ the governor said at a press conference in his outer office.

Lead has emerged as a prominent issue, partly due to the public outcry over last year’s disclosure of widespread lead in the water supplies of Flint, MI, but largely because more than 3,000 young children suffer from lead poisoning in New Jersey. Most have high levels of lead in their blood because of exposure to lead-based paint, peeling from older homes in urban areas.

The Legislature previously had sought to increase funding for lead prevention efforts, but the bill was blocked by Christie, who has since found more money for abatement programs.

[related]Legislators were quick to endorse the administration’s new initiative, as did advocates of lead prevention programs.

“This change will now allow more children to be identified and provide parents with the opportunity to protect their children,’’ said Staci Berger, president and chief executive officer of the Housing and Community Network of New Jersey, which has pushed the administration and lawmakers for more funding to prevent children from being exposed to lead.

The CDC standard is five micrograms per deciliter compared with the state standard of 10 micrograms, a level lead prevention advocates have long criticized as not stringent enough.

The administration last month also said it would add another $10 million to remove lead-based paint from low- and moderate-income housing. Lead in drinking water largely is a result of the toxic metal leaching from lead service lines, faucets, and drinking-fountain fixtures, which Christie yesterday labeled a multibillion dollar problem.

Some lawmakers have proposed diverting $20 million from the state’s Clean Energy Fund, a pool of money financed by surcharges on utility customers’ bills, to begin addressing that problem, but it has yet to move in the Legislature.

Noting the state’s efforts to address lead in drinking water, Drew Tompkins of the League of Conservation Voters said the steps are important, but do not address systematic problems facing the state’s drinking-water infrastructure.

Coincidentally yesterday, the federal Environmental Protection Agency announced it was awarding New Jersey $70 million to fund projects to improve the operation of wastewater-treatment plants and drinking-water facilities, part of an annual appropriation to states.

By previous estimates by the federal agency, the state has a backlog of $8 billion worth of projects that need to be financed.

Also yesterday, a legislative committee approved a measure that would set up a new commission to make recommendations for fixing the state’s water infrastructure, a problem both lawmakers and environmentalists said is long overdue.

“We know what the problems are,’’ said Sen. Richard Codey (D-Essex), “How do we fund it?’’