Senate President Steve Sweeney calls it a crisis — the high number of New Jerseyans exposed to lead in their drinking water in schools and in more than 100 water systems with lead service lines.
“We can’t just let this lag on. When people originally said Newark, 10 years — how would you like to be in a situation where you didn’t know whether your water was safe for 10 years?” asked Sweeney.
Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Mercer and Middlesex), vice chair of the Environment and Energy Committee, said it would cost $40 billion over 20 years to fix the state’s water infrastructure issues. Their Water Quality Accountability Act became law in 2016.
“And everybody looks up to our state on this act, but it needs to have teeth. It needs to be stronger in making sure that some of the districts around the state, the water districts that are not following it, do follow it. So that’s really one of the things that the new committee is focusing on,” Greenstein said.
‘A sense of urgency’
A Senate committee has been holding hearings on water quality in New Jersey and making recommendations that are now in legislation. Recommendations include: the Schools Development Authority taking action to remove lead from drinking water; making replacement of lead service lines an emergency across the state; training water systems to control corrosion to prevent lead leaching; and dropping the acceptable level of lead in drinking water below the federal standard.
“I think the biggest thing we want to come out of this new committee is a real serious sense of urgency about these issues,” said Greenstein.
Sweeney said voters last November approved the Securing Our Children’s Future Bond Act. The Murphy administration declined to comment, but Sweeney said the act should have been done by now. He called on the administration to borrow $100 million to address water infrastructure issues in the state’s schools.
“I know what’s going on here, they got a bond issue. I think they’re concerned about a bond rating downgrade,” Sweeney said. “That tells you, you need to fix things, but if you don’t want to fix things, then move forward. I mean, if you’re concerned with that, you can’t be. You have to just move forward and fix what’s wrong here.”
An issue years in the making
If it sounds as if Sweeney is putting a lot on the shoulders of the current administration, he said: “The fact is we know we have a problem, and again, you can’t blame this administration. So let’s make it clear, we’re not blaming any administration because this is 20, 30 years in the making. It’s what … this administration and this Legislature are going to do to fix it.”
New Jersey Sierra Club director Jeff Tittel welcomed the plan of action.
“We can’t allow the status quo to continue. We are poisoning our children. We are hurting our environment. And in a way, we’re also hurting our industry because our industry relies on clean water,” Tittel said.
Sweeney said New Jersey needs money to fix its water issues but he doesn’t want to raise fees. It’s something, he said, that could knock him out of office.