Old lead pipes push replacement plan in New Jersey capital

A worker hands a piece of lead pipe to a colleague as they work to remove water service lines Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020, in Trenton, N.J. The city announced it is replacing 37,000 lead pipes over five years as part of an an effort to remove the potentially harmful pipes. (Mike Catalini/AP Photo)

A worker hands a piece of lead pipe to a colleague as they work to remove water service lines Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020, in Trenton, N.J. The city announced it is replacing 37,000 lead pipes over five years as part of an an effort to remove the potentially harmful pipes. (Mike Catalini/AP Photo)

All 37,000 of the lead water pipes in New Jersey’s capital city will be replaced over the next five years at an estimated cost of $150 million, Trenton officials said Thursday.

The announcement comes about five months after the state’s biggest city, Newark, said it would speed up the replacement of its 18,000 lead lines over the next 2 1/2 years — and as the state grapples with how to move forward with its old water infrastructure.

Trenton’s publicly owned water utility draws water from the Delaware River and serves some 200,000 customers in the city, in addition to surrounding communities of Ewing, Hamilton, Hopewell and Lawrence.

Pipes will be replaced in phases as the city and Trenton Water Works, the public utility, continue to secure funds, which are coming from the state infrastructure bank, as well a federal program, according to David Smith, the water works chief engineer.

Residents must register on the utility’s website and pay $1,000 to have their lines replaced, Democratic Mayor Reed Gusciora said. That’s a savings, he said, since replacement typically costs about $2,000-$5,000 per line. About 7,000 people have already registered to have their pipes replaced, and officials say they hope to make the replacement mandatory and at no cost at some point.

Trenton has struggled with lead in its water for years, though Gusciora said 2019 was the first year in memory that the water’s lead level was under the federal limit of 15 parts per billion.

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

Lead in drinking water has been linked to developmental delays in children and can damage the brain. It is most often caused by pipes connecting a home to a water main as well as by lead fixtures or lead solder.

The problematic water took on new urgency over the summer when tests came back positive for lead in some of Newark’s drinking water. That led the mayor and county officials to work out an agreement for a $120 million bond to speed up lead pipe removal from 10 years to nearly three years.

Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy also called for a $500 million bond to pay for replacing all the lead pipes in the state. There’s a consensus that price is the biggest factor holding up replacement, though it’s unclear whether Murphy’s proposal would cover the cost.

Another issue is the incomplete picture officials have of where lead pipes are located. The state began asking the state’s 600-some water utilities to submit inventories of their systems last year, but so far only 160,000 lead pipes have been accounted for. Other estimates show the figure is likely double that.

Trenton has an inventory of all the lead pipes its responsible for, Smith said, but homeowners and businesses own the stretch of line that runs from the street to the house.

That information is much more difficult to come by, he said, though Trenton will be replacing the entire length of lead pipe with copper to eliminate that issue.

Other states have begun replacing lines, as well. In Michigan, Flint’s lead levels spiked in 2014 after the city switched its water source. That led the state to come up with a plan to replace all 500,000 of the state’s lead pipes.

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