By Brenda Flanagan
So far, the white-hot media spotlight’s pinpointed Newark schools where recent surveys of drinking water showed lead levels high enough to shut down 30 buildings. Acting on that red flag, Senate Democrats today introduced a bill that requires immediate, statewide testing for lead in all school drinking water and mandates test results get publicized.
“I’m told that there’s no law that mandates pretty much anything. And I’m thinking, you got to be kidding me. And so the Senate president and I spoke with Sen. [Teresa] Ruiz and I’m saying, we need to mandate testing,” said Sen. Ron Rice.
New Jersey school districts do test for lead using EPA standards, but on their own schedules. Jersey City has a robust testing program. Camden’s been using bottled water in some schools for years. Asbury Park says it hasn’t done random tests since 2009. It’s not required. It will be in this bill.
“Unlike the administration, that doesn’t think it’s a crisis, if it’s your child that gets poisoned and becomes neurologically disabled, you’ll find out,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney.
“We have also added to the bill a requirement that water filters or treatment devices be installed on water fountains and on sinks used for food preparations in school buildings with lead pipes, lead solder or fixtures containing lead,” said Ruiz.
The bill provides $3 million a year to pay for bi-annual lead testing 30 days before school starts and six months into the school year. It also provides $20 million from the Clean Energy Fund to buy water filters. It’d cover every school, including charters and privates. To actually fix the lead-contaminated school infrastructure though could cost millions.
“It’s expensive, but poisoning children? It’s not acceptable to say we can’t fix it because it costs too much. Every single child, there were 3,500 children I think last year diagnosed with high levels of lead,” Sweeney said.
New Jersey’s Education Law Center, which represents students in New Jersey’s 31 so-called Abbott districts, today sent a letter advising state education officials about the lead in Newark school water saying, “…the Department of Education and Schools Development Authority must act expeditiously to address hazardous conditions of elevated lead in Newark Public School facilities. A failure to do so … would constitute an egregious violation of the state’s constitutional and statutory obligations and duties.” The letter calls for an emergency program to identify needed construction repairs to pipes and plumbing, and requisite funding.
“It’s a state takeover district, number one. So the government has to respond, OK? And should respond with whatever’s necessary,” Rice said.
Both the water and the students at Newark schools are being tested for lead. Officials there will offer a progress report tonight.