Senate President Sweeney & Senator Greenstein | September 20, 2019 | Star-Ledger |
Ten months ago, New Jersey voters approved the Securing Our Children’s Future Bond Act, which included $100 million to ensure the safety of drinking water in our schools. The funding to clean up the water infrastructure in our schools was a top priority of Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, and it was aimed specifically at replacing century-old pipes that might contain lead.
The week the bond act was approved, the City of Newark was handing out water filters to residents because testing showed dangerous levels of lead in the water pipes of Newark homes.
Yet today, that $100 million approved by the voters that could go to protect the drinking water of our schoolchildren sits unallocated and unspent. In fact, the state Department of Education and Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) have yet to issue any guidelines or promulgate any regulations for how school districts would apply for the money once the Treasury Department actually issues the bonds.
Given the inaction so far, it is unlikely that school districts will be able to spend that 2018 bond issue money protecting our water infrastructure until at least the 2020-2021 school year.
The administration’s failure to move expeditiously on the bond issue is emblematic of a lack of urgency across the board in dealing with the crisis of lead in our drinking water, as state Sen. Teresa Ruiz, who represents part of Newark, pointed out during a recent Senate committee hearing on the enforcement of the Water Quality Accountability Act.
We passed that law to ensure that New Jerseyans would not suffer the same health issues that plagued residents of Flint, Michigan. The law, which was developed out of hearings conducted by the Joint Legislative Task Force on Drinking Water Infrastructure and co-chaired by state Sen. Linda Greenstein, required utilities to implement a water system and treatment program designed to inspect, maintain, repair, renew and upgrade pumps, water sources and treatment facilities, and to establish a water main renewal program with a 150-year replacement cycle.
Yet two years later, as many as 79 public water utilities serving 2.5 million people had yet to comply with the law and certify the safety of their drinking water. The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) cited the lack of penalties in the law as an excuse for municipal water systems not complying, but the lack of urgency in the agency’s follow-up is concerning.
As Chris Sturm of New Jersey Future pointed out during that Senate hearing, while DEP required utilities to implement an asset management plan in compliance with the Water Quality Accountability Act by last April 19, “we are hearing that some water utilities are not taking this requirement seriously because they know the DEP does not plan to enforce it.
The DEP failed to set up the electronic reporting system for water utilities required by the law, and does not post the results where concerned citizens can find out what their water utility is doing.
The real problem is that we do not know the potential hazard posed by lead contamination in our water supply, how many lead pipes need to be replaced, how many water pipes are broken, and in which towns.
What we do know, as Sturm noted, is that “inadequate, aging water infrastructure is a statewide problem” and that ”water systems fail, sometimes unpredictably. In July, South River residents woke up to find brown water coming out of their taps and a month later it was reported that an employee was falsifying the water quality tests.”
Newark residents have worried about lead in their drinking water for years, and, as health officials are quick to point out, there is no safe level of lead. When lead gets into the developing brains of young children, it can cause life-long learning disabilities and behavioral issues. That’s why the Senate has fought so hard to try to protect water quality and also, under the leadership of state Sen. Ron Rice, to ensure that funding is not only appropriated, but spent to remove lead paint.
As state Sen. Troy Singleton, who chaired last week’s Senate Community Affairs Committee hearing on the Water Quality Accountability Act, pointed out, one of the biggest problems is the fragmentation of responsibility among government agencies. The Board of Public Utilities regulates private water utilities, the DEP is responsible for drinking water quality, and the capital budgets of the multitude of public water utilities are reported to the Department of Community Affairs.
Fragmentation of regulatory authority and in the delivery of water services is a national problem. Nationwide, 40,000 out of 50,000 water utilities serve fewer than 10,000 customers and often lack the resources to maintain safe water infrastructure, Texas A&M Professor Manny Teodoro testified. Not surprisingly, that’s true in New Jersey, where we have 247 water utilities with varying levels of technical expertise to cope with complex water quality issues and often with inadequate budgets.
Municipalities that are unable or unwilling to bond or raise rates to make the needed repairs need to consider regionalizing with other public utilities or turning over their water systems to private companies.
We also need to ensure we are going after all available sources of funding. The administration did not even file a letter of interest in July 2018 for $5.5 billion in federal loans available for projects under the Water Infrastructure Financing and Innovation Act, although it did so this July. Fortunately, Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo stepped up with $120 million in bonding to replace lead pipes in Newark.
We need to fix these problems, starting with compiling reliable data on the extent of the problem in each town and making that data publicly available. The dire health consequences of lead in drinking water are permanent. This is a crisis that demands urgency. We need to ensure that the water is safe to drink for all New Jerseyans.
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