The Suez water company yesterday said it will step up replacing lead service lines in northern New Jersey that have fouled drinking water for thousands of customers, vowing to spend $15 million to remove 25 percent of the lead in its system by the end of the year.
The replacement program is much more aggressive than the previous announcement by the company, which had come under pressure from towns to speed up replacements initially projected to take as long as 14 years.
The company, which serves 800,000 customers in northern New Jersey, detected unsafe levels of lead in 15 of 108 homes tested last summer, results that were disclosed in January. Like most other cases where levels of lead have been found in tap water, the problem is blamed on lead service lines connecting customers with water mains in the streets.
“It’s a phenomenal first step,’’ said Oradell Council President Tracy Schoenberg, one of nearly 8,600 customers with a lead service line owned by Suez. “It’s exactly the type of commitment we wanted to see.’’
Suez said it will replace as many as 100 lead service lines a week and 2,400 by the end of the year. The goal is to replace all lead service lines and the 12 percent of lines that have lead goosenecks — small flexible pipes about 18 inches long that connect a service line to a water main.
“At this moment, I can’t give you a time frame,’’ said Debra Vial, director of communications for Suez, referring to when the company will finish the replacement program, or its ultimate cost.
For communities, like Oradell, not in the first wave of service line replacements, they would like to have a better idea when the company will get around to their towns. “We kind of wonder where we are in the queue,’’ Schoenberg said.
Lead can cause serious health issues, especially for pregnant women, infants, and young children. Lead poisoning can cause significant, lifelong physical and mental complications.
“This has been an all hands on deck effort to attack this issue,’’ said Mark McKoy, Suez vice president and general manager. “It’s a targeted approach that will maximize the amount of lead removed.’’
Within weeks, work will begin in eight municipalities that have the highest number of lead service lines: Bogota, Hackensack, North Bergen, Ridgefield Park, Rutherford, Teaneck, Union City and West New York.
In addition, Suez is working with Bergen County to coordinate the replacement of lead service lines with road reconstruction projects. The utility’s service lines will be replaced in East Rutherford and Little Ferry in connection with transportation work there.
Many other communities are struggling with lead in drinking water, a problem well recognized by state officials but one that has. By some estimates 350,000 New Jersey homes and businesses have lead service lines coming into their structures.
In Newark, lead in tap water is a pervasive problem with two in five sampled homes having the contaminant in their drinking water above federally recommended action levels. Earlier this month, the city launched ato replace 15,000 lead service lines.