The Legislature yesterday voted to spend $20 million to begin fixing pipes and fixtures that have contaminated drinking water in public buildings with unsafe levels of lead.
With no debate, the Senate approved a bill (S-2460) that would allocate money from the state’s much-raided Clean Energy Fund to address the problem, which has emerged as a priority with recent findings of unsafe levels of lead in drinking water in many school districts.
Few argue with the need to address the problem, but both business lobbyists and environmentalists oppose the legislation, which now heads to the Assembly, because it is tapping into the fund.
The fund was set up to provide a pool of money, financed by a surcharge on electric and gas customers’ monthly bills, to pay for projects to promote renewable energy and reduce energy consumption. The fund, which typically raises over $300 million a year, has repeatedly been employed to pay for other uses, including to close deficits in the annual state budget the past seven years.
Since the Christie administration took office, at least $1.3 billion has been raided out of the fund, a step some lawmakers — who have gone along with the diversions — liken to a hidden tax.
Instead of relying on the fund, the state needs to come up with a more permanent and better-funded fix than the bill, according to clean energy advocates.
“It’s taking money away from a critical environmental function,’’ said David Pringle, campaign director for the Clean Water Action. “Rather than shaking the pillow for change, they should come up with a real solution.’’
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, agreed. “It’s an $8 billion problem; they need a long-term fix.’’
But Sen. Kip Bateman (R-Somerset), the sponsor of the bill, defended tapping the Clean Energy Fund in a statement released after the vote. He said the fund is projected to have a surplus of $156 million this year, making it a simple way to fund lead abatement without increasing taxes.
“This money is just sitting there in an underutilized fund when it could be used to pay for an important project to improve a critical public health issue,’’ Bateman said. This fall, 3,000 public schools were to begin testing their drinking water for lead under an executive order issued by Gov. Chris Christie.
“We have to come up with a way to test the water systems in our public buildings, and if they have lead contamination, we have to find a way to remediate it,’’ Bateman said.
Still, the use of the Clean Energy Fund raised concerns with Rate Counsel Director Stefanie Brand, “It’s a good cause, but it’s not one that should be paid for by electric and gas customers.’’
Lead, a serious public health hazard, can cause lifelong physical and mental problems, especially in young children. Since the discovery of unsafe lead levels in more than a score of Newark public schools and elsewhere, the administration and Legislature have funded modest efforts to step up lead testing and screening programs.
Also yesterday, the U.S. Senate easily passed legislation to help communities deal with lead problems in drinking water across the nation. It would provide $60 million countrywide in grants to replace lead pipes.