The bill is being written by state Sen. Troy Singleton, D-7 of Delran, and will be formally introduced by the senator on Thursday before the Senate panel meets. A draft copy of the legislation lays out an aggressive schedule for utilities and water departments to comply with in order to alleviate the danger of lead exposure from drinking water.
TRENTON — Legislation requiring all public water systems in New Jersey to create inventories of any lead pipes within their systems and replace them within 10 years will be heard by the Senate Community and Urban Affairs Committee this week.
The bill is being sponsored by state Sen. Troy Singleton, D-7 of Delran, and will be formally introduced on Thursday before the Senate panel meets. A draft copy of the legislation lays out an aggressive schedule for utilities and water departments to comply with in order to alleviate the danger of lead exposure from drinking water.
Specifically, the draft bill calls for water systems to create and submit to the state Department of Environmental Protection a detailed inventory of all known lead service lines in their distribution systems within 18 months. After the inventory is submitted, the utility will then have 90 days to provide notice to any customers served by any lead pipes, including information about the health effects of lead exposure and steps customers can take to reduce their exposure.
More than 161,000 lead service lines are believed to still be in place across some 104 water systems in New Jersey, including several operating in Burlington County. Replacing them all is expected to cost over $2 billion and will involve performing work on private property.
Service lines extend from utility water mains to homes and buildings. But the portion of the pipe crossing the property lines is typically considered the property owner’s responsibility.
Singleton’s bill specifies the utility or water system must take responsibility for replacing the entire lead service line and that homeowners, businesses and other property owners must provide the utility access to complete the replacement.
The bill sets a deadline of replacing all lead service lines within 10 years (at least 10% each year) and requires water systems to submit a proposed replacement schedule to the DEP within a year after it submits its lead service line inventory.
In a speech last month, Gov. Phil Murphy publicly set the goal of replacing all lead service lines within a decade and called on the Legislature to approve placing a $500 million bond referendum on the 2020 ballot to provide funding.
Lawmakers are expected to consider the proposed bond referendum during the ongoing lame-duck session, though some have questioned whether $500 million is adequate.
Singleton’s legislation specifies that water utilities must make a “reasonable effort” to obtain grants, low-interest loans and other financial assistance available from the state or federal government, including funding from the state’s Infrastructure Bank, before it can seek to recoup any costs for the pipe replacement from its customers.
The bill specifies that water utilities, including investor-owned utilities like New Jersey American Water, can seek to recoup no more than 25% of its costs for replacing lead service lines from all its customers. The remaining 75% of the expense must come from the utility’s existing resources, the bill specifies.
Private utilities seeking to recoup the 25% share of the expense must submit a reimbursement plan to the state Board of Public Utilities to consider and government-run utilities must submit their requests to the state Division of Local Government Services to review and approve.
The bill is being introduced by Singleton during the ongoing lame duck session of the Legislature amid an ongoing lead contamination crisis in Newark, where the city has begun replacing all lead service lines connecting homes to water mains with $120 million in bond secured by Essex County.
While Newark has received most of the attention, Murphy and other state officials have stressed that lead exposure is a statewide problem and that lead service lines are present in both urban, suburban and rural communities.
The Bordentown City Water Department has wrestled with lead contamination during the last two years, though the utility has said it has no lead in its source water or lead pipes or service lines in its distribution system. The lead is believed to become from in-home plumbing materials and fixtures in certain homes, though the DEP has required the city to treat its water with “corrosion controls” in order to prevent lead from leaching from any pipes.
The city has also provided free water testing for homeowners and worked with the Burlington County Department of Health to hold several free blood screening clinics for children.
Singleton has spearheaded the Senate’s response to lead contamination as the chair of the Senate Community and Urban Development Committee, and before penning his bill he oversaw four committee hearings on water contamination and infrastructure issues, including lead service lines.
“Safe drinking water is a human right,” Singleton wrote in a September opinion piece published in the Asbury Park Press on the issue. “Unfortunately, across the country, and here in New Jersey, we are struggling not only with how to address the current water crisis, but also with how to solve the long-term problem of upgrading our aging water infrastructure. By taking a proactive approach and looking surgically at the issues, we can make New Jersey a national leader in solving the crisis of lead and other pollutants in our water supply.”
Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said the legislation was long overdue.
“I’d like to see a quicker timeline than 10 years,” Tittel said Monday. “We let this drag on for so long that we really have a crisis in New Jersey as far as lead in drinking water. So overall, we need to get this done and done now.”
He said the financing component in Singleton’s legislation was critical, since it specifies that utilities can’t pass on all the costs of service line replacement to their customers.
“Water companies should be profiteering from a problem they allowed to happen,” he said.
In addition to the bill requiring utilities to create an updated inventory of and replacement schedule for lead service lines, the committee is also scheduled to consider companion bills Thursday to require home sellers to disclose if lead plumbing is in the home and another bill allowing municipalities to create a local ordinance allowing it to enter private residential properties to replace lead service lines.
Murphy has also called on lawmakers to approve legislation requiring inspections and disclosure of lead contamination during home sales, as well as the creation of a “Lead-safe” certification for rental properties. He also wants lead testing to be required for children attending public schools, preschools and childcare centers. Last month, the governor also announced new regulations requiring schools to test their drinking water for lead every three years rather than six and to post the results online and on a central state-mandated online database.