After lead pipe scare, water system serving 800K N.J. customers shows improvement

An extensive water system that supplies hundreds of thousands of New Jerseyans in dozens of cities has returned to state and federal regulations after a lead scare nearly two years ago.

SUEZ announced Wednesday morning that its Hackensack system, which serves around 800,000 people in 57 communities in Bergen and Hudson counties, is not subject to any special government lead oversight.

The news comes after the water system was found to be high in lead in the second half of 2018. At that point, SUEZ stated that of 108 water samples tested, 16 had lead levels above the federal standard of 15 parts per billion. According to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, the 90th percentile of water samples had lead levels of 18 parts per billion.

This violation prompted SUEZ to reform the water treatment process at the utility company’s Haworth facility and to make extensive efforts to replace the leading service lines across the service area.

“SUEZ is committed to providing sustainable, high quality drinking water that meets or exceeds our customers’ expectations,” said Nadine Leslie, CEO of SUEZ North America. “Our teams work around the clock to ensure that each of our systems delivers water of the highest quality and meets all legal requirements.”

MORE: Check out our comic that shows how lead got into drinking water across New Jersey

Lead service lines – garden hose-sized pipes that connect individual lots to plots of water – were at the heart of the Garden State’s water problems. When leaving a sewage treatment plant, water itself almost never contained lead; Instead, lead enters just before the tap, when water flows through aging, obsolete lead pipes.

Water is typically treated by utility companies like SUEZ to be less corrosive before being distributed system-wide. Such treatment prevents the water from eating away at lead plumbing and prevents the toxic metal from posing a public health hazard.

However, this treatment, known as anti-corrosion treatment, can fail. Physically replacing old leads is the only permanent solution to the problem.

To date, SUEZ has spent $ 65 million to replace approximately 5,000 lead service lines in the Hackensack system. At least some replacement work has been carried out in 47 of the 57 cities served by the system.

According to SUEZ, around 10% of the customers in the system have a lead service line or a lead gooseneck – a small piece of pipe that is connected to service lines. The utility previously said Bogota, Hackensack, North Bergen, Ridgefield Park, Rutherford, Teaneck, Union City and West New York had the highest number of lines in the system.

SUEZ plans to spend an additional $ 20 million next year to replace additional feed lines in the system. However, according to SUEZ spokeswoman Debra Vial, there are still around 5,000 lead service lines in the system to be replaced and work to remove all lines is expected to continue beyond 2021. It’s unclear how much money is being spent in total, but Vial said spending will continue until all guide lines and goosenecks are removed.

The utility company also adjusted the anti-corrosion treatment for the water system to optimize its effectiveness.

According to DEP records, the total effort has significantly reduced the lead content. The Hackensack system last exceeded federal lead standards in the first half of 2019. Since then, the lead levels have steadily decreased.

“We are happy to announce these results, but our work is not done yet. We want to get all the lead out of our system, ”said Alan Weland, Vice President and General Manager of the SUEZ Hackensack System.

The SUEZ Hackensack System is nowhere near the only one in New Jersey addressing issues related to senior service lines. Newark has replaced more than 15,000 of an estimated 18,000 plumbing lines in its water system since March 2019 for a total of $ 120 million. Trenton started a line exchange program earlier this year.

As early as the first half of this year, water systems for customers in Lambertville, Belleville, Milltown, Sparta and Kinnelon were found to be high in lead.

According to state records from last year, there are at least 161,000 lead service lines in New Jersey, and that number is expected to increase as water systems report their lead service line inventories to the state. DEP began building a nationwide inventory of leading service lines in 2019.

The American Water Works Association has estimated that there may be 350,000 leading service lines in New Jersey and that replacing all of them could cost about $ 2.3 billion.

Last year, Governor Phil Murphy unveiled his plan to address key issues in water and from other sources nationwide. The culmination of the plan is a call for the state to commit $ 500 million and a package of new legislation to replace every leading service line in New Jersey within 10 years.

However, the economic impact of the coronavirus has halted Murphy’s massive borrowing plan for lead service line replacement. The governor was able to receive $ 60 million in the new state budget, which was approved at the end of September, for the exchange of management lines.

Read more about NJ.com’s coverage of New Jersey water issues here.

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Michael Sol Warren can be reached at [email protected]

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