The state Department of Environmental Protection is surveying the number of pipes made of lead that bring water from the street into homes and businesses and therefore have the potential to contaminate drinking water. Incomplete results at the start of October showed 160,000 lead pipes already had been found, so the total might be in line with previous estimates of 300,000 statewide.
Lead service pipes can leach the toxic metal if the water isn’t properly treated, which caused problems for Newark this year. After much dispute over the extent of the problem and how to handle it, the Essex County Improvement Authority stepped up and announced it would lend the city $120 million to speed up replacement of its 18,000 lead water pipes.
The DEP survey mostly is finding lead service pipes in urban areas in the northeast and southwest parts of the state, but also in municipalities scattered elsewhere. The preliminary figures included 1,800 lead lines in Stone Harbor — which the borough subsequently disputed, saying there actually are 600.
Early DEP numbers showed the Margate City Water Department has about 7,000 lead service lines. Across the state, the lead lines — which were banned from new construction as of 1970 — are being found in water systems operated by municipalities and by private companies such as NJ American Water.
Gov. Phil Murphy two weeks ago responded to the Newark problems and growing concern about lead water pipes with a proposal for a $500 million, 10-year plan to replace such pipes — but only paying for those in municipal water systems.
He would require private water companies to replace the lead pipes and charge customers higher rates to cover the cost — estimated at an average of $6,000 per service line replaced.
Murphy’s plan would be unfair to many New Jersey residents.
For starters, service lines belong to residential and business customers, who are responsible for their repair and replacement. Many already have replaced their lead service lines at their own expense. Murphy would have them also pay for the replacement of lead lines owned by many other customers.
Customers of companies such as NJ American Water, which provides water in seven municipalities in Atlantic County, also would have to pay twice — once through higher monthly bills for the work in their own water system and again through their taxes to replace service lines for people in municipal water systems.
The state’s Division of Rate Counsel warned that charging ratepayers for work done on private property “is a slippery slope that could vastly increase rates and cause hardship for the very people we are trying to help.”
Murphy also wants to borrow the $500 million for the program. New Jersey is $48 billion in debt, with the nation’s worst debt ratio. Between state debt and pension obligations, each resident already is on the hook for $18,116.
The public would have to approve the borrowing to help only municipal water customers, so Murphy wants legislation to put the debt-increase referendum on ballot in 2020.
The state needs a fairer, financially sounder plan on lead mitigation than Murphy’s.
The place to start is to find every lead service line in the state and notify the residential and business owners of them. The obligation to replace them should remain with their owners, while the state could make available a subsidy to reduce that cost based on the owner’s need.
Most lead service pipes aren’t currently causing problems, but replacing them is a worthy goal because it’s the only way to ensure there will never be lead contamination in the water, however treatment is handled.
The state could encourage that by requiring disclosure of a lead service line when a property changes hands — as Murphy’s proposal would sensibly do — and by eventually requiring the building code standard of no lead to be met when there is a significant property upgrade or new occupancy.
And whatever the state costs of addressing lead service lines, their funding should be found by reducing the spending that has made New Jersey financially unsustainable.
Legislative leaders welcomed Murphy’s lead proposals, but they should ensure they are effective, fair to all water customers and don’t worsen New Jersey’s already dire finances.