New Jersey has $1B to get the lead out of its water. Let’s use the money wisely. | Opinion

Published: Dec. 26, 2021

By Doug O’Malley and Greg Lalevee

Environmentalist Doug O'Malley and Greg Lavelee, of International Union of Operating Engineers Local 825, say we saw in Newark, which replaced 22,000 lead water lines in record time, how complicated this work can be. Thankfully, the recently passed bipartisan infrastructure legislation will provide New Jersey with $1 billion over five years to get the lead lines replaced.


The signing of the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package last month was a historic step forward to invest and repair our nation’s infrastructure — from our roads, bridges and rail lines to investing in broadband and modernizing our electric grid to repairing our water infrastructure. This long-delayed legislation rightfully received the full support of every member of the New Jersey Congressional delegation.

The package included a $15 billion down payment to replace lead service lines across the nation and it also includes $200 million to help stop contamination of schools’ drinking water, which is pervasive. These investments should be the start of the action we need to take to repair the pipes that serve us daily with our drinking water.

The infrastructure package’s components to replace lead service lines borrowed heavily from the bipartisan Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) and Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX) Get the Lead Out Act (H.R. 3300) bill which provides the roadmap — and funding — for the full replacement of all lead service lines.

This collaborative proposal is the first national legislation requiring the replacement of all lead service lines within 10 years. Equally as important, it provides the full funding to get the job done. This landmark bill helped set the stage for the relevant pieces incorporated into the bipartisan infrastructure bill that Congress passed and President Biden signed into law.

Vice President Kamala Harris recently announced a national lead action plan to replace all lead pipes and paint in the next decade, and for the EPA to strengthen lead testing requirements.

Nearly 2,000 communities have had drinking water samples with high levels of lead.

Lead is very harmful to our children, affecting the way they grow, learn and behave. Every major public health organization agrees there is no safe level of lead.

So how did we get to the point where this toxic substance is polluting our drinking water? For decades, water utilities installed service lines – the pipes that bring water from the main in the street into our homes – that were made entirely of lead. These toxic pipes are the single largest source of drinking water contamination, accounting for 50% to 75% of lead contamination at the tap in homes, child care centers and other buildings that have them.

New Jersey has an estimated 350,000 lead service lines, of the 9.3 million that the EPA estimates still exist across the country.

There is no shortcut to solving this problem. As we have learned more about the health impacts of low levels of lead, and the limits of corrosion control, one conclusion has become astonishingly clear: These lead pipes must go.

We know this can be done. Newark has just replaced more than 22,000 of these toxic pipes in record time. Several other communities, including Green Bay, Wisconsin, and Lansing, Michigan, have done it as well.

As we saw in Newark, this is complicated work that requires thoroughly trained construction professionals who safely removed the lead piping and replaced them using the most advanced construction technologies. All this work was done in the least disruptive way possible and needs to be similarly replicated in all of New Jersey’s communities dealing with lead lines.

In fact, Gov. Murphy signed legislation this summer mandating that all lead service lines be removed within 10 years — the same deadline supported by President Biden and the Smith-Cuellar Get the Lead Out Act.

Of course, this will cost money. And that’s where Congress can build on the investments made in the bipartisan infrastructure bill.

The Smith-Cuellar Get the Lead Out Act would authorize $45 billion for replacing lead service lines. Of that total, the bipartisan infrastructure bill makes a down payment of more than $15 billion – one-third of the way there. New Jersey is slated to receive $1 billion over five years to improve our water infrastructure, which will provide a needed infusion to remove lead service lines.

Earlier this month, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ) announced that EPA will provide more than $168 million from the infrastructure bill package to replace lead service lines and tackle the forever chemical PFAS contaminants found in New Jersey drinking water.

This investment to replace lead service lines received an additional boost with the $10 billion in the Build Back Better Act passed by the House last month. This combined funding would replace 5 million lead service lines, more than half of our total nationwide.

The success of the bipartisan infrastructure package in Congress is a real down payment on fixing our infrastructure — and nowhere is that more critical than the needed investment in the lead service line replacement provisions. Let’s start putting this money to work to make our drinking water safe and ensure that the work is done properly the first time, even as we advocate for more resources to get the job done.

Doug O’Malley is director of Environment New Jersey, a state-wide environmental advocacy organization, representing more than 80,000 members and activists. Greg Lalevee is business manager of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 825 which represents more than 7,500 members.

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-12-27 03:23:41 -0800