Getting Lead Out of NJ’s Water Means First Finding How It’s Getting In

Package of bills would require public water systems to compile list of lead service lines, public schools to maintain online database of lead-testing results

lead service lines
Hoping to get a handle on the extent of the public’s exposure to lead, a legislative committee yesterday approved a package of bills aiming to map out where and how the contaminant poses a threat to residents.

The legislation, the latest in a series of bills seeking to address the problem of elevated levels of lead in drinking water, would require public water systems to compile an inventory of lead service lines in their distribution systems.

Another bill (A -3373) requires the state Department of Environmental Protection to develop and adopt a statewide plan to reduce exposure to lead in the environment, assessing the geographic areas where lead in the drinking water and soil poses the biggest risk to the public.

Who’s going to pay for the cleanup?

The package won backing from health advocates and environmentalists, even though they lamented that the bills, as have past legislative efforts, ignore the larger question of how the state and/or the public is going to pay to fix the problem.

More than 300 schools in New Jersey have found lead levels in at least one drinking-water outlet in state-mandated testing of supplies, and there are estimates that as many as 350,000 homes have lead service lines, according to Chris Sturm, managing director for policy and water at New Jersey Future.

“Wherever these lines exist, it will cost billions of dollars to fix,’’ predicted David Pringle of Clean Water Action. “We need to identify the problem and then figure out how to rectify it.’’

In New Jersey, as in the United States, most of the lead found in drinking water seeps into supplies from lead service lines from the street into the home, rather than being delivered by public water systems.

Under the bill (A-2697), a public water system would be required to make its lead service line inventory available to state and local government officials, as well as to residents served by the system upon request.

“These bills are a step in the right direction,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “It’s critical to find out where these pipes are and get them out as soon as possible.’’

Lead levels in kids

But Tittel said the state really needs to do more,’’ said Tittel, noting the 3,500 children found in New Jersey last year with elevated lead levels in their blood. “Most importantly, we need to come up with a long-term plan that includes long-term funding sources.’’

So far, that goal has proved elusive. A special legislative task force on drinking water recommended a $400 million bond issue as a stopgap measure, but it is not advancing in the Legislature. The federal Environmental Protection Agency projects the state needs to spend $8 billion to deal with its aging drinking-water infrastructure.

In the past, money targeted for efforts to reduce exposure to lead have been diverted to other purposes, including millions of dollars from a program to reduce lead paint in homes. Tittel noted the governor’s proposed budget eliminates $6 million targeted to pay for lead testing in schools.

The committee also approved another bill (A-4121) that requires two state agencies to set up an online database requiring schools and daycare centers to report lead-testing results. Every school district in New Jersey is required to test for lead in outlets at their facilities, but many have never reported the results, according to lawmakers.