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By Michael Sol Warren | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com and Brent Johnson | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
There’s a new plan for eliminating lead contamination in New Jersey’s water. It just needs 10 years and billions of dollars.
A package of recommendations released on Thursday by Jersey Water Works, a nonpartisan infrastructure advocacy group, calls for sweeping policy changes to address the lead threat in the Garden State.
Gov. Phil Murphy joined the task force at a news conference in Trenton where the plan was unveiled, and embraced the proposals put forward by the task force. In his speech, Murphy announced that he will push for a $500 million statewide bond initiative to address lead contamination.
“In 2019, it is unacceptable that children are still poisoned by exposure to lead," Murphy said during the event at Thomas Edison State University.
The governor said the bond referendum is designed to “ensure every water system is safe to drink from and every home is safe to live in.”
Topping the list of recommendations is a call to replace every lead service line in New Jersey, with water systems picking up the tab. The American Water Works Association estimates that there are 350,000 lead service lines in New Jersey, and that replacing all of them will cost an estimated $2.3 billion.
Jersey Water Works first convened the task force in December. It’s made up of 30 members, ranging from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials to municipal water utility directors to environmental advocates.
The push for state action comes on the same day that the EPA announced an update federal rules dealing with lead in drinking water.
The first recommendation is for the creation of a statewide, multi-agency campaign to raise public awareness of health threats posed by lead. This should include, the task force says, Murphy declaring lead a public health threat.
Christopher Daggett, who headed the task force, made clear that the request is not for a state of emergency to be declared. Rather, Daggett said the threat declaration is meant to create a sense of urgency within government to address lead contamination throughout New Jersey.
Murphy addressed the health risks of lead exposure, including impacts on cognition in children, during his remarks Thursday.
Mary Coogan, the vice president of Advocates for Children of New Jersey, said that a lack of coordination among state and local government entities has been a long-standing hurdle to dealing with lead.
“Historically, this disconnect between state departments and agencies has been problematic,” Coogan said. “If they’re able to resolve those issues, I think it would benefit everybody.”
Replace the lines
The task force calls for a legislative package that will require water utilities to replace all lead service lines within 10 years. Murphy embraced that goal Thursday.
“This is a huge task and it will require partnership and further investments by water systems, developers, and county and local governments and authorities," the Democratic governor said. “It will require action by our legislative partners to not just put our financing proposal to the voters, but to pass the legislation necessary to implement a clear plan of action."
"But, make no mistake, this is the most significant step we can take to ensure safe and modern water infrastructure,” he added.
Murphy said the $500 million bond would go toward lead service line replacements in publicly owned water systems that are most in need. To pay for replacements in other public and privately owned systems, the task force calls for legislation that would allow the utilities to raise rates to fund work on private property. Murphy conceded that there will likely be a “modest impact” on ratepayers.
“We know the cause for this, and we have the prescription,” Daggett said. “The solution is costly, but it’s a one-time investment.”
Lead service lines are recognized as the main source of lead in drinking water, according to the task force. Service lines are garden-hose-sized pipes that connect individual properties to water mains.
The DEP is currently working to create a comprehensive inventory of the state’s lead service lines. Through August, that effort confirmed more than 160,000 lead services lines in 104 water systems. Those numbers are expected to grow.
Other laws called for in the recommendations include requirements that lead service lines be disclosed at home sale or rental, that water utilities update their lead service line inventories annually and that partial lead service line replacement be banned except in certain circumstances.
State Senate President Stephen Sweeney said there are a number of lead-related bills being considered in the state Legislature and it’s likely some will be passed in the coming months. Murphy would then need to sign them into law.
“We’re just glad the governor is paying attention,” Sweeney, D-Gloucester, told NJ Advance Media.
Joseph Bella, the executive director of the Passaic Valley Water Commission, said he’d need to push for policies that give his utility greater access to private property, so that the line replacement work can be done. Bella said that his utility has been replacing lead service lines since 1984; today about 200 utility-owned lead service lines are in the system compared to about 14,000 privately-owned lead service lines.
None of the actions recommended by the report address lead solder or lead fixtures that may be inside older homes.
Improve water rules
State agencies like the DEP should take steps on their own to improve protections for New Jersey’s drinking water, the task force recommended. This includes updating state rules for monitoring lead levels in water, and creating a new rule that would require filters be supplied to any home found to have elevated lead levels.
The EPA sets federal regulations for lead in drinking water through its Lead and Copper Rule. The DEP has the ability to set stricter standards, but for the most part the agency sticks with the federal rule.
“If you don’t update that regulation and modernize it, you’re not going to reduce lead exposure,” said Mike Furrey, the owner of Agra Environmental and a member of the task force.
The task force also calls on the state to study the expansion of state-required blood testing to include pregnant women and to consider establish state standards for lead levels that are stricter than the existing federals rules.
Schools, homes, and daycares
Young children are most at-risk to lead’s health threats; that’s why the task force is pushing for a series of stricter regulations to deal with lead in schools and daycares. That includes recommendations to require testing school water every three years instead of every six, publish all school water testing results in a single statewide database and require daycares to have a drinking water management plan.
One key recommendation made by the task force is that school districts and daycares actually be required to remediate their systems when high lead levels are detected. As of now, schools are only required to shutoff the problem water outlets and supply an alternate source of water. Schools in Camden, for example, have been substituting bottled water for water fountains since 2002.
Some of these changes are already happening. Murphy announced at a press conference on Monday that the New Jersey Department of Education will now mandate the three-year testing cycle and create a central database for sharing the test results.
Though lead in drinking water has captured headlines, old paint is a far more common source of lead exposure. Murphy called for stronger statewide action to deal with lead paint remediation.
“Without even knowing it, children are being exposed within their own homes,” he said.
Murphy said the state will work on legislation to require inspection and disclosure of lead when a house is sold and rented.
Training a new work force
Removing lead from New Jersey will take manpower, and Murphy said that right now the state’s labor force is lacking.
“At least one-third of our water and wastewater operators are at or near retirement age," Murphy said. "As of this past August, there were only 60 certified lead evaluation contractors and 46 certified lead-abatement contractors in the entire state — we will need to greatly augment these ranks.”
To deal with this, Murphy called for the development of programs in high schools and technical schools to train the next generation of workers that will deal with New Jersey’s lead. Part of this, Murphy said, would be to work with the state’s federal delegation on the passage of the Water Workforce Development Act, which is cosponsored by U.S. Sen. Cory Booker.
Meanwhile, as New Jersey considers these new recommendations, the federal government is preparing to update its rules for lead in drinking water for the first time in years.
“Today, the Trump Administration is delivering on its commitment to ensure all Americans have access to clean drinking water by proposing the first major overhaul of the Lead and Copper Rule in over two decades,” EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said in an announcement Thursday.
The EPA’s changes will give systems with high lead levels significantly more time to replace their lead service lines.
Under the current Lead and Copper Rule, a water system that exceeds the federal action level must replace at least 7% of its lead service lines per year until the lead levels drop. The new changes will drop that requirement to 3% per year.
But the new changes also create a 10 parts per billion “trigger level” — lower than the existing 15 parts per billion lead action level — that spurs a set of actions to be taken by water systems that surpass that limit. When the trigger level is passed, water systems must begin replacing lead service lines at the 3% per year rate. EPA officials said the agency expected this would lead to more lead line removals than waiting for the action level to be exceeded.
Erik Olson, the director of health and food for the Natural Resources Defense Council, disagreed with the agency’s assessment and called the EPA changes a “serious rollback" that may be illegal under provisions in the Safe Drinking Water Act that prohibit the weakening of drinking water regulations.
“Before another generation of children grows up drinking lead from their kitchen tap water, the EPA should develop a plan that completely pulls every lead line out of the ground at the six million homes across the nation that still have them as soon as possible," Olson said. "Safe drinking water is a basic human right; by weakening the rule, Wheeler’s EPA is giving reprieve to one of the worst toxic scourges known to science.”
The EPA also announced other changes ranging from stricter lead testing rules to requirements for speedier public notification of high lead levels.
This story was updated at 4:01 p.m.
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