Across New Jersey, lead service lines lay underground, carrying drinking water from main lines into homes.
They’re the same kinds of pipes that were at the heart of Newark’s lead crisis, as well as problems in Trenton and Bergen County. But despite the threat, state authorities only know where half of the estimated 350,000 lead service lines in New Jersey. And there’s currently no timeline for getting rid of all of the state’s problematic pipes.
That could all soon change.
State lawmakers on Thursday gave final passage to a bill (A5343/S3398) that would require every community water system in New Jersey to inventory their service lines within six months, and replace each of those pipes within 10 years. Water systems could apply to the state for a 5 year extension if they can prove they need the extra time.
The legislation, which passed the state Senate on Monday with an unanimous vote and the Assembly on Thursday with a 73-0 vote, is a key part of a plan Gov. Phil Murphy put forward in 2019 to address lead exposure around the Garden State.
Assemblyman Gary Schaer, D-Passaic, was the bill’s primary sponsor in the Assembly. He said the measure is critical to protecting the health of children around the state, and it will create jobs as utilities set to work removing the old pipes.
“It is probably the most consequential and important bill that I’ve ever written,” Schaer said.
Murphy’s office declined to comment on the legislation. State Sen. Troy Singleton, D-Burlington, said he expects Murphy will sign it as is.
Singleton, one of the bill’s sponsors in the state Senate, called the measure an aggressive down payment on the “monumental task” of getting New Jersey’s lead out. He added that he thinks this bill could serve as a model to lawmakers in other states.
“I’m excited that we’ll be able to do this,” Singleton said. “We know the detriment that lead service lines have, especially to our children’s development.”
Lead exposure can cause serious health effects, particularly to children. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, lead can damage a child’s brain and create learning and behavior problems. There is no safe amount of lead in a child’s blood.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates at least 20% of human lead exposure is from drinking water. Infants who consume formula may get up to 60% of their lead exposure from water.
“In recent years, a number of New Jersey water systems, particularly those in urban areas, have reported high lead action levels in their drinking water which is simply unacceptable,” said state Senator Linda Greenstein, D-Middlesex, another sponsor of the bill.
“Everyone should be able to grab a glass of water without having to worry about possible lead contamination and we must mend this problem throughout the state immediately.”
When water systems have high lead levels, the source is generally lead service lines and other old lead plumbing near the tap rather than the source water itself. Drinking water is treated to be made less corrosive, to prevent it from eating away at any lead pipes it may pass through, but corrosion control treatment can sometimes fail. Experts agree the only way to permanently remove any lead threat from water systems is to replace the outdated pipes.
The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection was aware of about 160,000 lead service lines around New Jersey in 2019, but the agency has warned that number is likely to grow as more water systems update their inventories.
The American Water Works Association estimates there are 350,000 lead service lines in New Jersey, and replacing all of them — the only way to ensure that no lead seeps into the drinking water supply — will cost an estimated $2.3 billion.
Paying for the work so far has come in a variety of ways. Many publicly-owned systems have relied on state loans to fund replacement projects. Newark, which has emerged from a lead crisis that drew national attention in 2019 by replacing more than 18,000 service lines without any cost to residents, relied largely on a $120 million county bond that was repaid with money collected by renting the land under Newark Liberty International Airport.
The new bill allows investor-owned companies, like New Jersey American Water and SUEZ, to assess fees on customers within an affected water system to pay for their lead line replacement programs. Plans to create such fees would have to be approved by the state Board of Public Utilities.
It’s possible that a rush of federal dollars may flow into New Jersey for lead line replacements. A bipartisan infrastructure deal announced by President Joe Biden and 10 U.S. Senators on Thursday includes $45 billion to deal with 10 million problem pipes around the nation.
If Congress fails to deliver, however, local policy experts hope state leaders will dedicate existing COVID-19 relief money to lead service line replacements.
“While we hope that Congress will take such action, we cannot count on it,” Chris Sturm, the managing director of policy and water for New Jersey Future, said in a statement. “The state of New Jersey may need to dedicate a portion of American Rescue Plan funds for this purpose, especially for those communities that already struggle with unaffordable water rates.”