The Murphy administration is proposing borrowing half a billion dollars to finance the first leg of a 10-year process to remove lead service lines and paint from hundreds of thousands of New Jersey homes – a process that could ultimately cost billions of dollars more – and ramping up training of the necessary labor pool to actually get that work done.
That’s far less than the $2.3 billion price tag the Department of Environmental Protection gave in April to replace an estimated 350,000 lead pipes and service lines across the state.
“In 2019, it is unacceptable that children are still poisoned by exposure to lead,” Gov. Phil Murphy said Thursday at Thomas Edison State University in Trenton in his prepared remarks.
Meanwhile, an accompanying report from Jersey Water Work’s Lead in Drinking Water Task Force recommended a $2 billion 10-year replacement of all the lead lines in the state.
Murphy argued that would be enough, though he was not hard line to maintain that number.
“When you combine what money is available through the DEP, the infrastructure bank, federal money, you’ve got a lot of investor-owned utilities,” he said.
And it is not clear how quickly the market would absorb the new money, if at all.
The state would put the bond question before voters in the 2020 presidential election in November, Murphy said — a move that would require the cooperation of Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District, as well as Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-19th District.
“We will give all of the proposals that need legislative approval serious consideration and work with the Assembly and the administration to get them done,” Sweeney said in a prepared statement.
“Many of these proposals mirror ideas offered by legislators or follow through on legislative initiatives, including more frequent testing for contamination, a more complete inventory of the results, and greater transparency and accountability for the public,” the senate president added.
The Murphy administration is already in the rulemaking process for how to begin selling half a billion dollars of bonds to finance infrastructure upgrades to New Jersey’s K-12, vo-tech and community colleges following a 2018 bond that was approved by voters. And, no libraries in the state have seen any money from a $125 million bond act that voters approved in 2017 to finance library upgrades.
“Even if it does get passed by the voters, the soonest that it could be used is three years from now,” said Jeff Tittel, head of the New Jersey Sierra Club environmental advocacy group and frequent critic of Murphy. “While we wait, things will continue to get worse.”
The recommended $500 million would buffer property owners from the cost of replacement with the state government picking up the tab instead.
But, it is not clear how much of the money would go toward incentivizing private utilities, such as Suez Water, which own the water mains but not the lead service lines that connect individual homes, and are generally the responsibility of individual property owners.
Current state law does not require property owners to make those changes, and legislative action would be needed to give environmental regulators teeth with their new enforcement.
Given that the replacement per property could cost up to $7,000, the state would need to put together the funds to pick up the tap for residents, and to help utilities offset the costs.
“Options for raising state funds include a fee on all water customers dedicated to support state debt, a state bond without a revenue source, or a recurring state appropriation,” the study reads.
Echoing the recommendations of the task force, Murphy said he wants legislation that would let water utilities tack a surcharge onto customer’s water bills.
Also, home sales and rental agreements should include information about lead contamination and any remediation steps the property owner is taking.
“Currently, homeowners are not required to determine whether there is lead in their paint, service lines, plumbing, or soil prior to the sale of their home,” Murphy said. “We will work with the legislature to close this loophole, requiring an inspection and disclosure of any lead contamination at point of sale.”
Jobs and training
A first round of testing by the Department of Environmental Protection counted at least 160,000 lead pipes across the state used for transporting drinking water, according to the Associated Press. According to the recommendations from the governor’s office, the DEP would have to create a registry of the number and locations of homes with lead plumbing, paint and other infrastructure.
At least a third of water and wastewater operators are on the verge of retirement, and as of August New Jersey only had 60 “certified lead evaluation contractors” and 46 “contractor certified lead abatement contractors.”
The governor’s office warned the state would be in dire need of a new workforce to handle the replacement and maintenance of lead service lines. Such an endeavor would require coordination with the state’s labor and education departments; the Office of the Secretary of Higher Education; and its high schools, community colleges and vo-tech schools to hash out training programs.
“We will look to our high schools and technical schools to implement new programs where we can train the people we will need on the ground and in homes,” Murphy said. “We will work with our legislative partners to see where we need to reform licensure requirements so more candidates can be put in the field.”
Thursday’s proposals come at the heels of a public health crisis in Newark, where more than 100,000 residents served by the Pequannock service line may have been exposed to toxic levels of lead in their drinking water. Over the summer, tests by the Environmental Protection Agency revealed that three of the lead filters given to households in these neighborhoods were not getting the job done, resulting in the need for hundreds of thousands of water bottles to be provided to residents.
The City of Newark is borrowing $120 million, backed by Essex County which has a much higher bond rating, to fast-track the already-underway replacement of several lead service lines.
Meanwhile, Murphy rejected a proposal by the task force to use an executive order to declare lead contamination a public health crisis, something he resisted over the summer as well, despite pressures to declare the Newark situation a state of emergency.
“We’re doing that in a different way,” the governor said.