The state plans to help finance more than a half-billion dollars in clean water projects next year to reduce pollution from sewage treatment plants and to upgrade drinking-water systems.
A legislative package to provide money — funded by federal grants and repayment of loans — to scores of facilities won approval yesterday from the Assembly Environment Committee, measures expected to get to the governor’s desk before lawmakers break for their summer recess.
The legislation provides the funds to the state’s Environmental Infrastructure Trust, the popular and well-regarded financer of clean-water projects for the past several decades. Since its inception in the 1980s, it has funded $6.7 billion in upgrades for 1,234 projects.
In the upcoming 2018 fiscal year, the legislation will provide $539 million in low-interest loans mostly to local governments to upgrade their wastewater treatment plants and to improve plants delivering drinking water to customers throughout New Jersey.
In this year’s allocation, $323 million will be set aside for clean-water loans to wastewater plants and $216 million for drinking-water systems. Of the money going to the former, $224 million will be for loans to facilities making upgrades and repairs following Hurricane Sandy.
This year, the trust also will dedicate $30 million to replace lead service lines, a source of contamination for drinking-water systems when lead leaches into supplies from the pipes connected to a home or building.
Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) questioned whether more money should be allocated to replace those lines — given the problems posed by unsafe levels of lead that have been found around the state, including in public schools.
“As a policy question, shouldn’t that be a priority?’’ Wisniewski asked officials from the trust.
They said they only started offering up forgiveness loans for the replacement of the lines this past March, after they got approval from the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
“From a policy perspective, it is certainly high on the department’s priority list,’’ said Frank Scangarella, assistant director of the EIT. “We are starting to see a move on prioritization on lead. This is a good first step. We have a long way to go,’’ he said.
In fact, demand for loans has always outstripped available money. According to the EPA, New Jersey needs to spend $17 billion to fix its aging infrastructure for wastewater systems over the next five years. Another $8 billion is needed to overhaul its drinking water infrastructure.
Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex), who is chairing a special legislative task force examining infrastructure needs for drinking water, said a bond issue may be needed to begin addressing those problems.