In Trenton, a new plan to replace lead water service lines

It’s an aging New Jersey city with a storied history that has struggled with a relic of its past: lead in old service lines that leech the toxic element into the drinking water that flows from taps fed by the municipally-owned water supply.

But this is a story not about Newark, the state’s largest city, but instead about its capital, Trenton, which is embarking on a new, comprehensive plan to replace 37,000 lead service pipes leading to individual properties with copper tubing.

“We’re really excited about starting the program anew,” said Mayor Reed Gusciora. “We’ve done about 400 service lines ourselves, but now we have two contractors working simultaneously. It’s estimated that they will be working side by side and in the neighborhoods until we replace all the lead service lines, which we estimate to take about five years.”

Newark drew national media attention last year amid indications that it remediation efforts were not working to remove lead from the city-owned water supply.

Trenton has also struggled to cope with the problem. In 2017, the city had lead levels that exceeded the benchmark set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency of 15 parts per billion, and the state Department of Environmental Protection fined the city for missing deadlines to replace tainted service lines. The city is also under a DEP administrative consent order to address staffing deficiencies at its water utility.

“As we’re getting more, full staffing and doing system upgrades, you’re seeing marked improvements to the way we deliver water,” Gusciora said.

David Smith, who became the chief engineer of Trenton Water Works last year, blamed delays on problems locating lead lines and funding.

“Our intention is to make up for lost time,” Smith said. “We’re going to hit this aggressively.”

Unlike Newark, though, Trenton has not secured the funding to complete the entire project. To launch the program, it is tapping a $9 million state grant and a $15 million loan that allows it to replace some 2,600 service lines, less than 10% of the total that need work.

“This project is going to be fueled by the funding,” Smith said. “If we’re able to secure the funding needed to do a wide scale program — which we’re projecting to be $150 million to $200 million — once that funding gets in place, we’re committed to doing all that service to replacing all service lines in our system.”

Responsibility for replacing the lead service lines is shared by the city and individual homeowners. The water works is responsible for the section from a gooseneck where the line connects to the curb; the homeowner is responsible for the remaining portion of the line leading to their house. The city is offering to assist property owners.

“It’s estimated the cost from the middle of the street to the homeowner’s wall is between $2,000 to $5,000, depending on how far away your house is from the curb,” Gusciora said. “We’re doing it for a flat fee of $1,000 for each home. We do have payment plans. For those with limited incomes, we do have programs so that it won’t cost anything for the homeowner.”

Lead in drinking water is known to cause significant health problems, especially in children. According to the EPA, there is no safe level of the element in drinking water. Rather, the agency says, its 15 parts per billion benchmark denotes the level at which remedial action is necessary.

“We had a problem for years. We’re addressing them,” said Trenton City Councilman Joe Harrison. “At the end of the day, it’s about coming together and building a brighter future.”

There was praise among homeowners for the city’s approach.

“Mayor Gusciora is really being on top of this and I think it’s an excellent plan,” said Jane Rosenbaum, who already has a copper service line and does not need a replacement.

The American Water Works Association estimates the nation has some 6 million lead service lines.