Does State’s Solution to Lead-Contaminated Schools End with Bottled Water?

Lead, a potent contaminant that can cause severe health problems in young children and pregnant women, emerged as a national issue two years ago when Flint, MI, found out its residents had been drinking water with high levels of lead for many months.

It grabbed lawmakers’ and the Christie administration’s attention when 30 Newark schools were found to have unsafe levels of the substance in their faucets and outlets last March. It led to a new state requirement to test for lead in water at all public schools, state-funded daycare centers, and charters.

About half of some 800 facilities have finished testing their water for lead, according to the state Department of Education. More than 130 schools were found to have unsafe levels of the contaminant from at least one outlet, according to New Jersey Future.

In response, districts have been told cut off access to contaminated supplies and switch to bottled water. A more permanent solution is left to the districts, according to Jim Palmer, executive director of the Office of Project Management. “There’s no money we’ve got that is set aside for remediation,’’ he said.

That needs to be rectified, according to some, including David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, especially for the so-called Abbott districts —those targeted for additional aid.

His requests to the Department of Education and Schools Development Authority that schools with unsafe levels of lead in their water be eligible for special funding as part of a program for emergent projects have, so far, fallen on deaf ears.

The agencies have refused to fund more permanent remediation projects, Sciarra said. “They seem to be content to putting these districts on bottled water,’’ he noted. He called the decision troubling, given the state mandate to test all buildings, a requirement that must be completed by July.

Others agreed. “It all comes down to money,’’ said David Pringle, campaign director of Clean Water Action of New Jersey. “Bottled water is not the answer.’’

The department, in a letter to Sciarra last month, said it is committed to helping school districts fix the lead problem, but added, “Because this statewide testing program has not yet concluded, it is premature to begin the process for evaluating the best manner in which to deal with the situation.’’ Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, was skeptical of the response. “Testing for lead in drinking water should be the first step. It shouldn’t be the only step.’’

Department of Environmental Protection officials said they expect to have approximately $33 million to hand out in loans and other programs to help communities address lead in their water. The funds would be used to replace the service lines and other fixtures inside buildings where lead in the plumbing causes the contamination of otherwise clean supplies.

About 10 percent of the public water systems have been found to exceed the federal action level for lead in drinking water, according to Dan Kennedy, an assistant DEP commissioner. They are under so-called action plans to bring levels of the contaminant down below the recommended level, he said.

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