The drinking water contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan should serve as a wakeup call in New Jersey that we have neglected our water infrastructure for far too long. While our state has a history of being proactive in regards to protecting our water supply, our long-term lack of investment in our aging water delivery infrastructure and deteriorating supply systems present serious risks to the safety of our drinking water.
According to a 2010 American Society of Civil Engineers and the Federal Environmental Protection Agency recommendation, New Jersey needs to invest more than $16 billion in its drinking water and wastewater infrastructure in order to repair old, out of date, and poorly maintained supply lines. In fact, water supply lines in New Jersey’s largest cities can leak as much as 30 percent of the clean water that flows through them before reaching the pipes in our homes and businesses.
We have already seen the impact that our badly degraded water infrastructure has had in our most populous cities where high lead levels were detected in more than 3,000 young children in the state last year. Even more alarming, in 2014, 11 New Jersey cities were found to have a higher percentage of citizens with elevated blood-lead levels than the rates found in Flint. Our cities, as well as public and private utilities have turned to consumer warnings and education, anti-corrosion treatments and extra water testing to combat this problem. While these are important short-term strategies, the only permanent solution to this problem is replacing the lead pipes used as a main stay in our water delivery systems.
Elevated lead concentrations pose the greatest risk to the young children in our urban communities, where the water infrastructure deterioration is the most acute. Lead exposure can cause permanent brain damage and a lifetime of learning problems and behavioral issues. Last week, officials from the Department of Environmental Protection announced that some lead concentration levels in Newark’s public schools were found to be higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s “action level”. Sites that produce results above this level require advanced testing, prolonged monitoring, and rapid remediation.
Lead exposure is also extremely hazardous for the sick and infirmed. This month, water testing at Morristown Medical Center revealed the presence of lead in the hospital’s tap water that may have been there since January.
Swift and concentrated actions are needed at all levels of government to ensure that our most vulnerable citizens do not fall victim to unsafe drinking water. At the state level, legislation to create a task force to review the state’s drinking water sources was approved March 3 by an Assembly panel. The legislation establishes a task force to study and make recommendations concerning issues related to drinking water infrastructure in New Jersey. The task force is charged with identifying both short-term and long-term solutions to address the quality and condition of drinking water infrastructure in the state. The task force will be given six months to submit a report containing its findings and recommendations, including any proposals for legislation and other appropriate legislative or regulatory actions.
Similar to New Jersey’s crippling transportation infrastructure, our aging water infrastructure requires robust investment and technical innovation to accommodate our residents in the future.
It will require the long-term bi-partisan support of lawmakers, and the cooperation and ingenuity of the private sector. The Drinking Water Task Force established by the Legislature will endeavor to gain a better understanding of the specific actions our state must take to ensure that our children will not have to worry whether they will get sick when they brush their teeth at night.
John F. McKeon is a member of the New Jersey General Assembly representing the 27th Legislative District. He is the author of the 2004 Highlands Act is currently the Vice-Chair of the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee.