NJ lead pipe replacement project on hold from coronavirus’ economic hit

Children across New Jersey would continue to drink lead-contaminated water if heads of state abandoned efforts to repair old pipes, citing the economic devastation of the coronavirus pandemic.

Governor Phil Murphy plans to save more than $ 90 million to remove lead water pipes and educate families about the dangers of the invisible metal, which, when consumed in small amounts by children, can cause lifelong cognitive and behavioral problems.

Proponents say the proposed budget cuts threaten the progress made since last summer when water filters in Newark homes failed, caught national media attention and sparked protests. This crisis has been replaced by another one that continues the government’s approach to hazardous pipes removal.

“Of course, immediate COVID-19 concerns come first on our minds – but we cannot lose focus on the safety of our homes,” said Elyse Pivnick, senior director of environmental health at ISLES, a Trenton-based community development and environment organization. “Right now we all – especially our children – are spending significantly more time at home. Therefore, it is imperative that we do not stop supporting all families to live in healthy, lead-proof homes. This is no time to pin this down.” ” Worry aside. “

Murphy proposed earlier this year that they spend $ 80 million – what he called a “down payment” in his February budget speech – to allow communities to remove the pipes and repair the old infrastructure. But now he is proposing to cut those funds and another $ 1.5 million in the Department of Health’s budget for public relations. The legislature must approve the cuts before the end of the month. Another nearly $ 10 million to fund lead-safe renovations at the State Department of Community Affairs was frozen in March.

“COVID-19 has created an unprecedented fiscal reality for New Jersey in which the state has had to make many difficult decisions and implement spending cuts almost consistently,” said Alexandra Altman, a spokeswoman for the governor’s office, in a statement. “Governor Murphy’s administration remains committed to protecting the health and safety of New Jersey residents and will work diligently to deliver public health projects. Future funding must be determined with lawmakers.”

A bill was passed in the Senate this week that uses state and federal funds to provide loans for water infrastructure projects. There would be a maximum of $ 10 million for drinking water systems that serve communities with populations up to 1,000 for anti-corrosion treatment and pipeline replacement. The bill is pending in the meeting.

Heads of state have said they will need to cut or delay spending by about $ 5 billion over the next three months as Murphy’s orders the virus has shut down businesses and businesses and slashed tax revenues.

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Senator Troy Singleton, D-Burlington, said he was disappointed with the cuts despite understanding the state’s poor financial picture.

“It gave me a break because I think if we evolve out of all of this as we evolve out of this pandemic, some of the systemic issues that we created are going to get worse because we go away. ” he said. “And I get reasons why, I understand the tax reasons why.”

His own bill, which would require replacing all lead water lines through a cost-sharing plan, is also being put on hold because of the economic burden of the virus, he said. Singleton said replacing funding pipes as soon as possible remains his priority.

Chris Sturm, director of politics and water for New Jersey Future, a nonprofit focused on redevelopment and infrastructure, is working with lawmakers on this bill and is optimistic it will pass. This would allow utilities to raise tariffs to fund line replacement over a 10 year period. She said it would be a “modest and affordable” cost to evaluate payers and eventually address a longstanding public health problem.

“It’s so efficient when a utility can replace the entire pipe at once. The cost savings are significant,” said Sturm. “Second, it’s a public health issue. And third, we recommend that utilities don’t make a profit on it.” .

Lead is a metal that was used in water pipes and paint before it was banned decades ago because it can have harmful effects, especially on children, if it leaches into drinking water. In 2018, 4,472 children had so much lead in their blood that the federal government demanded measures, according to the Ministry of Health.

The problem has been known for decades: in 2002, Camden schools switched to bottled water because the pipes that led to drinking fountains and kitchen faucets contained lead. In recent years, however, at least 250,000 school children across the state have been at risk from drinking lead-contaminated water in their schools, a study by the USA TODAY NETWORK Atlantic Group found last year.

And after the lead pipe crisis in Newark last summer, supporters got support from Murphy and lawmakers who had committed to action. Governor and Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, both supported borrowing funds to remove the dangerous pipes but disagreed on what amount was needed. Given the high level of state debt and Murphy’s plan to borrow money to meet government income deficits, it is uncertain that this could happen.

“As this is a long-term infrastructure problem, it takes real sustained attention and funding and solutions to achieve a lead-free world for children,” said Peter Chen, policy advisor at Advocates for Children of New Jersey. A Newark nonprofit fighting lead poisoning in childhood.

“There is concern that if these cuts are permanent and not temporary, the momentum could be lost,” said Chen. “This government has been a strong advocate of lead remediation programs. We just hope that this energy will be sustained during and after this crisis.”

Statehouse reporter Dustin Racioppi contributed to this story.

Stacey Barchenger is a reporter at the New Jersey Statehouse. For full access to their work on the New Jersey lawmakers and political power structure, subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: [email protected] Twitter: @sbarchenger

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