A Senate panel approved five bills designed to advance state efforts to reduce the public’s exposure to lead in drinking water while strengthening requirements on utilities to report their plans to upgrade or replace aging pipe networks.
One of the bills (S-253), passed by the Urban and Community Affairs Committee on Monday, would require public water systems to develop inventories of their lead service lines — the pipes that run to a private house from a water main — and report them to state officials.
Another (S-320) would require anyone selling a house to disclose the presence of lead plumbing and lead service lines.
And a third bill (S-647) would step up requirements on utilities for reporting their efforts to maintain and upgrade their water networks to the state Department of Environmental Protection.
“The quality of public and private water infrastructure in New Jersey has been getting worse by the day, and we are taking action to stem the negative effects they are having on the residents of this state,” said state Sen. Troy Singleton (D-Burlington), who sponsored the lead-inventory bill and two other measures. Together, he said, the bills “will be the start of rebuilding New Jersey’s water infrastructure.”
Public health warnings
The legislation represents lawmakers’ latest efforts to protect the public from lead in drinking water amid Newark’s ongoing work to remove lead pipes from residents’ homes. And it comes after years of warnings by infrastructure-renewal advocates that New Jersey’s antiquated network of drinking water pipes needs billions of dollars in capital spending to stop leaks and protect public health.
In January 2018, a Joint Legislative Task Force on Drinking Water Infrastructure concluded that after decades of underinvestment, much of the state’s water network was beyond its useful life. Upgrading the network would be expensive, the task force said, but the cost of delaying the work, such as doing emergency repairs as the need arises, would be greater.
The new legislation addresses some aspects of the problem, and is broadly successful in doing so, said Chris Sturm, managing director for policy and water at New Jersey Future, a nonprofit that advocates for the renewal of water infrastructure, among other issues.
“The bills are addressing water infrastructure upgrades, and are following on from the legislative task force report,” Sturm said.
One of the bills strengthens an existing law, the Water Quality Accountability Act of 2017, by requiring utilities to make more detailed reports of infrastructure improvements and their cost over the last three years; plans for the next three years, and projections for the coming decade.
While the earlier law places some reporting requirements on the utilities, the new legislation would make it more effective, Sturm said. “The bill will help the Act live up to its purpose,” she said.
Striking the middle ground
The cost of upgrading the infrastructure remains a thorny issue, as reflected in a late change to S-253 on how the cost should be divided. A late amendment to the bill would require investor-owned utilities to bear 60% of the cost of replacing lead service lines, with ratepayers paying for the remainder — a change from language in the original bill that would require ratepayers to pay only 25% of the bill.
The bill’s sponsors, Singleton and state Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Mercer), agreed to the 60-40 formula after discussions with stakeholders including the state Department of Environmental Protection, Board of Public Utilities and the Governor’s Office, said David Smith, Singleton’s policy coordinator.
“The main crux of this bill, that everything hangs on, is how we’re splitting the payment of it,” Smith said.
After discussions with the stakeholders, the bill’s authors arrived at the 60-40 split, which appeared to represent a fair compromise for the competing interests, Smith said.
“It’s where we thought the middle ground should be struck,” he said.
Controversial infrastructure costs
But he acknowledged that not all stakeholders are happy with the current proposal. The utilities, for example, want ratepayers to pay the whole cost of infrastructure upgrades — but that, he said, would be “unfair.”
New Jersey Future, too, wants ratepayers in all but the most impoverished areas to pay all the cost for lead service line replacement, Sturm said. She argued that the costs would be modest when spread across most ratepayers.
Asked whether utilities would have to dig up suspected lead service lines for every house, Smith said that probably wouldn’t be necessary because investor-owned utilities likely already have that information.
“We’re just trying to get that information public and assess how much money is going to be involved,” he said. But that information is less likely to be available from municipally owned utilities, he said.
Stefanie Brand, director of the state Division of Rate Counsel, a watchdog for utility ratepayers, said ratepayers should not pay any cost of replacing privately owned property such as lead service lines but that she would agree to the proposed 40% if it were counted as an operating expense.
The relevant section of S-253 should be clarified to state that “the 40 percent is recoverable only as an operating expense, and that the investor-owned utility cannot make a profit on these costs,” she said in prepared testimony for the committee.
The bill requiring disclosure of lead plumbing and service lines in property-sale documents, S-320, is designed to protect buyers, said its sponsor, state Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex). “When people buy homes, they should be made aware of whether or not there are lead service lines running into their home,” he said in a statement.
Two other bills, S-968 and S-922, would require water systems to notify customers of elevated lead levels in drinking water, and ensure that the municipality has an asset-management plan for its water system, among other measures.
All five bills will now go to the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee.