NJ Will Replace All Its Lead Water Pipes In Next Decade

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy is mandating the replacement of all lead service lines across the state. The new legislation comes nearly two years after Newark—the state’s largest city— had to distribute bottled water to residents during the peak of its lead water crisis.

The new package of laws gives water systems 10 years to replace all their lead service lines with safer plumbing, though utilities can ask for a five year extension. Lead service lines, which pump water to homes and small businesses, are what caused lead levels to spike in cities like Newark and Trenton. 

“This is a crisis that has been building for decades and in some cases centuries,” Murphy said during a bill signing on Thursday in Bloomfield. “We’re going to assure that every water service line that contains lead is properly catalogued and then removed.”

New Jersey is the second state in the country to mandate lead pipe replacement, following Michigan. Illinois has a similar bill still sitting on the governor’s desk. New Jersey is also the first to target a 10-year replacement. 

“It’s one of the most significant things that can possibly happen for the lead in the drinking water issue,” said Gary Brune, senior policy manager for the New Jersey Future, a nonprofit that advocates for infrastructure investments. “This gives you the ability to be proactive and aggressive… the last thing you want is to find out that the lead is spiked in your neighborhood.”

In six months, more than 600 community water systems will have to inventory where their lead pipes are and make those records public. The owner of the water system will be responsible for replacement, not the private companies contracted to run it. 

The American Water Works Association estimates there are 350,000 lead service lines in the state, the fifth most in the country. The most current inventories provided by water systems to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection show there are at least 167,354 known pipes that need to be replaced. That’s about 14% of 1.2 million inventoried pipes. 

Under the law, lead goosenecks that connect service lines to water mains and galvanized pipes that can attract lead particles will also need to be replaced. There are more than 97,000 known lead service lines and another 70,000 goosenecks or galvanized pipes, the inventories show. 

Not all water systems submitted inventories, and those reviewed by WNYC/Gothamist show utilities don’t know what a majority of their pipes are made of. Nearly 1.1 million are of unknown materials, about 85% of all pipes. 

“The unknowns are a big part of this story,” Brune said. “Some of these utilities don’t have good records, but certainly the last thing they know about is what’s on the customer side.”

Most lead service lines are owned, at least in part, by the customers. In some cities, the water utility owns the part of the pipe that runs from the main to the curb and the customers own the segment that runs through their property and into their home. That means if a homeowner changed their plumbing over the years, the utility may not have a record of that. 

Getting the lead out

Newark is expected to finish replacing more than 20,000 lead pipes by September. The project was financed by $120 million in bonds issued by Essex County and the debt is being serviced through a lease deal with the Port Authority. 

Other towns say they can’t afford to take on so much debt. 

“You can’t create a great law and then say, ‘Okay, municipalities, your residents [are] already overtaxed, already footing the bill for a lot of other services that are mandated and we’re not going to help you with this,’” Belleville Mayor Michael Melham said.

Belleville uses Newark’s water and has recorded elevated lead levels in the last few years. The township has more than 5,500 lead pipes, according to its inventory. Melham said the township recently raised its water rates and it’ll be tough to increase rates again or to take on the cost of covering pipe replacements. 

The package of bills signed by Murphy on Thursday allows municipalities to issue bonds or special assessments for lead replacement projects though it does not set aside special funds to cover the projects. 

Some private utilities like New Jersey American Water and SUEZ have already been replacing pipes. A spokeswoman for SUEZ said by the end of the year, the company will have spent $90 million over three years removing 7,000 lead service lines. New Jersey American Water has replaced over 8,400 lead lines and has another 15,000 to go.  

Trenton currently tops the list for the most lead pipes at 36,700, followed by 30,000 by SUEZ in Hackensack. Older, denser cities are more likely to have lead service lines and that means the problems are more acutely felt by communities of color. 

The package of bills also addresses lead paint, the more common way children are exposed to the contaminant. Rental units will have to be inspected every time a new tenant moves in or every two years. 

No amount of lead is safe and ingesting it is particularly harmful for the development of children. More than 4,000 children a year are diagnosed with lead poisoning in the state. 

“Today New Jersey stops using our kids as the canary in the coal mine,” said Sean Jackson , CEO of Isles, Inc., a nonprofit focused on making homes lead-free. “With this new law, New Jersey will inspect and correct all rental properties for lead-based paint hazards, before that lead damages the lives and futures of our children.”