NJ moves to fix lead-tainted pipes, and water bills may get higher

New Jersey residents could see their water bills soar under a plan tabled by lawmakers Monday to replace any underground lead pipes that pollute water before it flows into schools, businesses and homes across the state.

Bill S-253 requires water utilities to identify lead pipes in their systems and share the cost of replacing the entire pipe, including the part on private land, with customers.Who should fund the pipe replacement was debated in a Senate committee Monday, even among proponents of the law who called it a solution to a public health crisis.

Lead is an invisible metal that can leak out of pipes and solder, as is usually found in older homes, and cause permanent brain damage and developmental delays in children. Legislators have promised measures to remove lead after water filters in Newark failed to remove it from the water in three homes last summer, and according to a report by USA TODAY NETWORK of New Jersey that identified 250,000 children living in theirs Schools were exposed to lead.

Senate Committee on Community and Urban Affairs legislature also voted on Monday for several other bills addressing lead in water and the state’s crumbling plumbing infrastructure, including a request:

  • Homeowners must replace a lead pipe (S-320) before selling their home.
  • Water systems to notify customers and local officials when they detect elevated levels of lead in drinking water, and the same notification from landlords to tenants (S-968).
  • More frequent reporting of infrastructure improvements and additional cybersecurity measures under the Water Quality Accountability Act, a law of 2017 that was the subject of several hearings over the past year (S-647).

All bills require additional votes in the Senate and Assembly before they can become law. The lead pipe replacement bill, a revised version of a similar bill introduced last year, is expected to be reviewed by the Senate Budget and Budget Committee early next month, said bill sponsor Sen. Troy Singleton, D-Burlington.

Under the bill, utility companies – whether owned by a private company or a municipality – would be hooked for 60% of the cost of replacing pipes and should look for state and federal grants and loans before increasing customer tariffs to cover the remaining 40 percent of the cost. The bill requires the replacement of the full lead service line, the line that runs from an aqueduct, typically under the street, to a home or business on private land.

The bill prioritizes replacement in schools, day care centers and hospitals as children are particularly vulnerable to permanent damage from lead, and sets a period of 10 years for all lead pipe removal.

It is not clear how much a customer’s bill could increase if the bill ultimately passes because in some water systems the number of lead pipes is not yet known. Because of this, the law requires water companies to first count the lead pipes and notify customers if they have one within 90 days, Singleton said.

GUIDED TOUR IN NJ WATER:The dire problem between property rights and pipe replacement

One concern that emerged in the debate over the bill was whether it was fair to require all customers to bear the cost of replacing lead pipes, including on private property, through increased water rates. One legislator was concerned about the potential to effectively double-bill some customers who had already replaced lead pipes, or to allow “slum lords” not to pay for replacements.

“We will cover these costs within the system and even people who have already spent their own money replacing their own lines will be affected,” said Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth. “This is worrying. It’s not fair.”

Alternatively, landlords who know they have lead in their water systems and have previously chosen not to replace pipes could benefit from having all water customers pay, he said. O’Scanlon voted for the law, saying lawmakers should look for ways to apply it more evenly.

“Is there any way I can overcome my concern and not stop, which is an urgent mission to replace these lines? I don’t know,” he said.

The bill sponsor acknowledged that rising fees for customers may not be well received by some New Jerseyans, but said replacing the pipes would reduce the cost of testing children for lead and providing special education programs.

A worker hands a length of lead pipe to a colleague as he works on water pipe removal in Trenton, New Jersey Thursday.  The city announced that it would replace 37,000 lead pipes within five years to remove the potentially harmful pipes.

“It’s part of our common good and our public mission to make sure everyone has good drinking water because if not, we’ll end up paying for it,” Singleton said. According to an April report by the Environmental Defense Fund and the Emmett Environmental Law and Policy Clinic at Harvard Law School, at least five other states allow at least five other states to use income from installments to replace pipes on private property.

While investor-owned companies like New Jersey American Water and Suez can turn to shareholders for funding, local governments rely on interest rate hikes or borrowing, said Frank Marshall, lobbyist for the New Jersey League of Municipalities.

Marshall suggested that state lawmakers allocate funds to financially troubled public utilities to cover the costs. This solution was also recommended by a task force convened last year to remove lead from the state’s water.

“It’s hard to imagine that they’ll have that much money. Many of them have also faced financial difficulties, “said Gary Brune, policy manager at New Jersey Future and lead author of the task force’s report, on municipal water utilities.

Governor Phil Murphy said at the same time as the task force’s report last year that he would support asking voters for a $ 500 million bond this year to replace lead pipes. That’s about a quarter of the estimated $ 2.3 billion cost.

The New Jersey Business & Industry Association turned down the bill, stating in a statement that investor-owned utility utilities need to be able to pass more costs on to their customers rather than charging shareholders the cost of replacing pipes to wear.

“The ability to pass costs on and generate a return on investment is constitutionally imperative as a compromise for interest rate control,” said Ray Cantor, vice president of public affairs for the association, in a statement.

Stacey Barchenger is a reporter at the New Jersey Statehouse. To get unrestricted access to their work, which covers the legislature and political power structure of New Jersey, subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: sbar[email protected] Phone: 732-427-0114 Twitter: @sbarchenger

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