Murphy answers critics, lays out plan to get lead out of schools

As worries over lead in drinking water continue to dominate, Gov. Phil Murphy announced a multi-pronged program Monday to bolster the state’s response to specifically addressing the existence of lead in public schools’ water.

The steps announced include the following:

  • Increase the number of inspections of school drinking water from the current once every six years to every three years;
  • Enhance enforcement against schools that do not comply with testing protocols; and
  • Improve the state’s and the schools’ reporting of water results, including a central database kept by the state.

It’s a whole of New Jersey problem, but it’s one we are here today to strengthen our efforts to overcome,” Murphy said in announcing the steps with Rep. Josh Gottheimer in Bergenfield.

“We recognize that we must do better,” Murphy said. “Additionally, the department will include in these regulations new direct enforcement powers to ensure that schools are transparent in the public reporting of their lead testing results and remediation efforts.”

School districts are required to post test results on their websites, but Gottheimer said he did his own searching and found many districts make users hunt for the numbers.

“The good news is it’s there,” Gottheimer said of the results online. “But parents are really busy. They should be able to go to the search bar on a site and type ‘lead water’ in, boom, and find it.”

The governor also ordered the state education department to create on its website a user-friendly portal for water quality test results of all school districts.

“This means that residents and educators will no longer have to dig through their school’s website for information, and that policy makers and others won’t have to navigate a laundry list of websites to get information across districts,” he said.

The state is already making a sizable investment in fixing the problem in schools. Last November, voters approved New Jersey borrowing $100 million to fix lead issues in public schools. But that money has been slow to go out, drawing criticism from state Senate President Steve Sweeney and others.

Murphy said Monday that the work in issuing the bonds is underway. “Our teams across many agencies have been working feverishly to get ready and prepare to go launch that,” he said, adding he expect the money out by spring 2020.

“Are folks frustrated it’s taken that long? Count me on the list,” the governor continued. “But, that’s not for lack of a lot of work. I mean literally moving heaven and earth, this is really complicated stuff.”

“What we’re saying today explicitly, which has not been said before today, that districts that have had a lead exceedance in their measurements will be eligible to be first in the queue for that money when we do raise it.”

Sweeney issued a statement Monday that welcomed the administration’s steps. Gottheimer also applauded the Murphy administration’s policy push.

Every child deserves to drink water that’s free of lead, and every parent deserves to know if their child’s school has lead in their pipes,” the congressman said.

The New Jersey Work Environment Council was on board, as well. “I think this is a breath of fresh air in finding out that we are taking the necessary steps to remediate the lead and water issue, crisis in New Jersey,” said Heather Sorge, campaign organizer for Healthy Schools Now.

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