NJ Spotlight

In a step to get a better handle on the extent of lead contamination in New Jersey’s drinking water, a Senate committee yesterday passed a bill that would require public water systems to inventory the number of lead service lines in their systems.

Supporters of the legislation (S-1783) say it would help the state and local residents better understand the scope and magnitude of lead contamination in water, a problem that officials mostly attribute to lead service lines, which connect customers’ homes with water mains in the street.

Recent disclosures underscore lead in drinking water as a statewide problem, not just limited to urban areas with aging water infrastructure. Last month, Suez North America warned that thousands of homes in Bergen and Hudson counties may be at risk of having unsafe levels of lead in their drinking water.

An estimated 350,000 homes and businesses in New Jersey have lead service lines coming into their structures, the fifth highest of any state in the nation. Lead seeps into tap water from those service lines, fouling drinking water, according to officials. In his State of the State address, Gov. Phil Murphy said more than 1.5 million residents are provided water with elevated levels of lead.

The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Mercer), would require public water systems to compile and report an inventory of lead service lines in their distribution systems to the state Department of Environmental Protection. They would have to make their inventory available, at no cost, to appropriate state and local officials, as well as customers.

No comprehensive map of NJ’s water lines

Greenstein, who co-chaired a special legislative task force on problems with the state’s drinking water infrastructure, said she was surprised to learn that there is no comprehensive mapping of water lines around the state.

Lead emerged as a top issue after testing at Newark schools and homes found widespread lead contamination in drinking water. In Newark, more than two in five sampled homes had lead in tap water above action levels set by the federal government.

“It’s just not in Newark homes,’’ said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey. “This is an endemic problem even though we’ve been talking about it for four years.’’

As with other issues related to lead, however, the bill provides no money to do the inventory, a flaw that poses problems for municipal-owned systems, according to Frank Marshall, of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities.

A ‘tremendous onetime expense’

“This is a very top priority for us,’’ Marshall told the Senate Environment and Energy Committee. “The only issue is this is a tremendous onetime expense for us. We’re looking for help.’’

According to a fiscal estimate by the Office of Legislative Services, the cost to municipal-owned systems could run as much as a total of $30 million. “The big issue is paying for all the steps that have to be done,’’ noted Greenstein.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, however, said the inventory will serve a purpose by showing the public how widespread the problem is. “It can be a wakeup call to people so we can come up with the resources to start fixing the problem,’’ he said.

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