Taking Inventory Seen as First Step in Legislative Fix for NJ’s Lead Issues

Tom Johnson | November 15, 2019 | Energy & Environment
Measure calls for statewide inventory of lead service lines and 10-year replacement plan, but input from lawmakers, interest groups could change it significantly
Credit: Governor's Office
Replacing lead service lines in Newark this summer

A legislative approach to dealing with the pervasive contamination of drinking water with unsafe levels of lead moved forward yesterday, with a bill (S-4177) requiring a statewide inventory of lead service lines in New Jersey and calling for their eventual replacement over the next 10 years.

While the Senate Community and Urban Affairs Committee approved Sen. Troy Singleton’s (D-Burlington) measure as part of a three-bill package, the legislation is likely to change significantly based on input from interest groups who endorsed the effort, but still want substantive changes to the measures.

The legislation is part of a growing concerted effort to address statewide problems posed by lead contamination of drinking water, an issue confronting Newark and many other parts of the state. That city has adopted an aggressive approach to replace lead service lines with a $120 million bond issue in as little as three years.

Meanwhile, Gov. Phil Murphy has proposed putting a $500 million bond issue to replace lead service lines, which are believed to be the main source of contamination. But most advocates consider this proposal to be far too small to address the scope of the problem, which the state Department of Environmental Protection projects could cost the state as much as $2.3 billion.

With other bills pending to deal with other aspects of the lead crisis, it is likely what will eventually emerge from the lame-duck Legislature will be a combination of initiatives pushed by lawmakers, the Governor’s Office and public interest groups.

The overriding imperative of both lawmakers and advocates is to initiate a statewide inventory of lead service lines and some sort of financing system to replace them, although some groups want a quicker time frame than 10 years.

“We have a systematic problem in the state and need to identify where they are, and then replace them,’’ said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “We cannot kick the can down the road any longer.’’

Sen. Ron Rice (D-Essex), vice-chairman of the committee, agreed. “We need to expedite the inventory. At least the governor came up with a number. We’ll know the real number when we get the inventory.’’

That is when the real fight begins: determining what share ratepayers pay in replacing lead service lines into homes and what share water companies pay.

‘A human right’

“Safe drinking water is a human right,’’ Singleton said. “Unfortunately, we are struggling across the country and here in New Jersey with how to deal with the current water crisis and the long-term problem of upgrading our aging water infrastructure.’’

Under his bill, water systems would have to provide a detailed inventory of all known lead service lines in their systems within 18 months and then inform customers of problems.

Unlike another bill (S-1783) that a separate Senate committee approved in February, the measure also would mandate replacement of lead service lines by allocating costs between customers and shareholders. That provision is subject to debate, and is likely to be tinkered with as the bill moves through the Legislature.

Other bills in the package would require the disclosure of lead plumbing in residential and other properties prior to their sale (S-3990), similar to disclosing unsafe radon levels in homes before they are sold. Another bill (S-4110) would allow municipalities to adopt ordinances allowing them to go into residential properties to replace lead service lines as long as they notify residents in advance.

Finally, the Senate Education Committee reported a bill (S-4115) that would require the state Department of Education to publish all drinking water reports and their testing results on its website.