Is it possible that the state, local governments and water utilities can find and replace what could be hundreds of thousands of lead service lines in New Jersey in the span of a decade?
That task, projected to cost up to $2.6 billion, would be mandated under a bill (A-5343) that won unanimous approval from the Senate this week and headed back to the Assembly for a final technical approval.
The legislation, which sailed through both houses without a negative vote, is viewed as the first substantive measure to address the widespread contamination of drinking water throughout New Jersey, a problem largely linked to lead leaching from thousands of lead service lines delivering water from pipes under the street into homes.
Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-Passaic), the prime sponsor of the bill, described it as an opportunity “to actually solve what has become a monumental crisis in each one of our municipalities.’’ Lead poisoning in children can cause irreversible damage to the brain, nervous system and kidneys.
The legislation would require water systems to submit initial counts of lead service lines, then plan to replace 10% of the lines each year and finish within 10 years, with some exceptions. The cost to replace the lines would be borne by customers — whether customers of local government-owned water systems, which account for roughly 60% of the population, or investor-owned utilities, about 40% of the population.
“Not only will this bill help find out where the lead lines are, but it will help come up with a mechanism to pay to replace those lines,’’ said Taylor McFarland, acting director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “Lead is one of the most hazardous substances known to man and impacts children, especially small children, in our urban areas.’’
A mandate to act?
Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, praised passage of the bill, calling it a mandate to finally ascertain how many lead service lines are in the ground, and how many need to be replaced.
“Every year we leave these lead service lines in the ground, we allow kids drinking lead-tainted water,’’ he said. “And that’s a huge cost.’’
But O’Malley predicted, if this bill is signed into law, legislators likely will have to revisit the issue.
“The best practice for lead service line replacements is not to put a tax on homeowners to pay for it,’’ he said, noting in Newark lead service lines have already been replaced — regardless of whether homeowners can pay for it.
If the state and local governments decide to fund the $2.6 billion to replace the service lines over 20 years, it could cost $132 million annually for municipalities, and $226,000 for the state, according to a fiscal analysis by the Office of Legislative Services. Ratepayers would be likely be responsible for these debt service costs, according to the analysis.
Gov. Phil Murphy has previously announced plans to help fund lead service line replacements, but none of those were enacted, including a $500 million bond issue that was never placed on the ballot. He also proposed $80 million to kick-start replacement of lead service lines in a subsequent state budget, but the funds were eliminated because of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.