Another shot at addressing N.J.’s crisis of lead in drinking water

Lead pipes

(Chuttersnap/Unsplash)

This article originally appeared on NJ Spotlight.

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New Jersey should finally begin addressing the crisis of lead in its drinking water in a systematic and long-term manner, advocates told a legislative committee Monday.

At the first meeting of the Assembly Special Committee on Infrastructure and Natural Resources, the issue of lead in drinking water, a problem particularly affecting low-income communities of color, dominated the more than 3 1/2-hour hearing.

The committee, newly established this legislative session, aims to address problems associated with New Jersey’s aging infrastructure, including drinking water, stormwater and wastewater treatment systems. By some estimates, it will take tens of billions of dollars to fund the required upgrades.

Too costly to fix

Lead leaching from service lines into residents’ homes has long been recognized as causing unsafe levels of the contaminant in drinking water not only in urban areas but also across the state. With the projected cost of replacing those lines estimated to be $2.3 billion by state environmental officials, however, few long-term fixes have been proposed.

That proved true during the hearing, even as some lawmakers acknowledged the need to come up with a funding plan.

“We need to find a find a revenue structure that is sustainable,’’ said Assemblyman Robert Karabinchak (D-Middlesex), the chairman of the committee. “This is an investment for the future. I believe it will start with this committee.’’

Gov. Phil Murphy has sought to begin addressing the problem, but for a variety of reasons those plans have yet to be realized. Last fall, Murphy proposed a $500 million bond issue, but it never made its way onto the ballot. In February, Murphy proposed setting aside $80 million in next year’s state budget, but that allocation has been scrubbed because of the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

“That’s one that shouldn’t be cut,’’ Karabinchak said. “In my personal opinion, that should be there.’’

Pushing for short-term funding subsidy

Others agreed. Chris Sturm of New Jersey Future, an organization that has been one of the most active in trying to solve the lead-in-drinking-water problem, urged the Legislature to prioritize a short-term funding subsidy that will allow communities and water purveyors to begin addressing the lead service problem.

Sturm also proposed, as did some representing water purveyors, allowing purveyors to incrementally raise water rates in the short term among all water customers to spread out the costs of replacing the lead service lines.

That proposal drew opposition from the New Jersey Division of Rate Counsel, which submitted written testimony to the committee. Rate Counsel director Stefanie Brand argued existing law bars utility customers from being required to pay in rates the costs associated with replacing privately owned lines. Typically, the homeowner owns the service lines going from the house to the curb.

“If we were to force them to pay for customer-owned lines, we would be asking them to subsidize improvements to the property of others who have access to more resources than they do,’’ Brand. “So low- and moderate-income customers would see their bills go up in order to pay for this subsidization.’’

But Dennis Hart, a former director of the Division of Water Resources at the state Department of Environmental Protection, urged the committee to develop both short-term and long-term goals.

Refocusing on the big picture

“We’ve lost track on the big picture,’’ said Hart, now executive director of the Chemistry Industry Council, describing lead as the number one water issue facing the state. “We do have to finally take on the lead issue.’’

Elyse Pivnick, senior director of environmental health at Isles, a nonprofit in Trenton, agreed. “The way lead is addressed in New Jersey is fragmented and never goes to scale,’’ she said. “We need to replace lead service lines systemically.’’

Newark, one of the few success stories in dealing with lead in drinking water, has tapped a $130 million bond issue by the Essex County Improvement Authority, to replace all lead service lines in the city within three years.

But Kareem Adeem, director of the city’s water and sewer department, noted there has not been as much movement on reducing lead contamination for water fountains in schools. “At the end of the day, until we get serious about this, we are going to still be kicking the can down the road,’’ he said.

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