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New Jersey takes major steps forward on lead in drinking water

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Tom Neltner, Environmental Defense Fund

When it comes to addressing the challenge of lead service lines (LSLs), recent event in New Jersey have set the stage for long-term progress amid short-term crises. The watershed moment came on October 10, when Jersey Water Works and Governor Phil Murphy held a joint press conference announcing their respective plans to reduce lead in drinking water that featured a shared goal of fully replacing the state’s estimated 350,000 LSLs within ten years. A week earlier, Congress enacted a law, authored by Senator Booker, enabling New Jersey – and other states as well – to secure critical funding by shifting the state’s share of the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (SRF) to the Drinking Water SRF.

With the Governor’s announcement, New Jersey joins Michigan and Washington as the only states to commit to fully replacing LSLs. It also becomes a leader among the 16 states that have adopted policies in the past four years that support the hundreds of communities taking action to replace their LSLs.

As other states consider the LSL challenge, they should look to the process New Jersey used to reach this stage and its close coordination with state agencies.

New Jersey’s Stakeholder-Led Process

Key to the state’s progress was a coordinated effort by a host of organizations, which were convened by a collaborative initiative called Jersey Water Works, whose 500 members seek to transform the state’s inadequate water infrastructure by investing in sustainable, cost-effective solutions. In December 2018, Jersey Water Works launched a comprehensive planning effort and established a diverse 30-member Lead in Drinking Water Task Force that developed the plan. The Task Force was chaired by Chris Daggett, former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region 2 Administrator and former Commissioner of New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP). New Jersey Future is the “backbone organization” that supports Jersey Water Works, secured funding to staff the Task Force, conducts the research, and drafted the plan.

The Green and Healthy Homes Initiative laid the foundation with its February 2018 Action Plan. EDF provided technical support to New Jersey Future, primarily by sharing background information for the initiative and giving examples of efforts in other states and communities. Representatives of several other nonprofit organizations, public and private water systems, academics and state and federal agencies participated actively in the Task Force.

While not coordinated with the Task Force, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Clean Water Action drove efforts in Newark to address the city’s high levels of lead in drinking water.

The Task Force’s Recommendations

The Task Force’s report set an aggressive goal – the virtual elimination of lead in drinking water in ten years. The ten-year horizon is largely defined by the time it would take to find and eliminate an estimated 350,000 LSLs. The use of the term “virtual” acknowledges that leaded solder and brass fixtures will remain in indoor plumbing and must be managed through more effective corrosion control of the water and that leaded brass – albeit at lower levels than in the past – continues to be used in new faucets and fountains.

The Task Force, which began its deliberations in December 2018, recommended 19 interdependent actions. Under the proposed framework, water utilities would offer no-cost, mandatory LSL replacements to property owners funded by modest rate increases and supported by a $500 million state bond issue to reduce the burden on low-income communities. The state would also explicitly allow rates to fund LSL replacement on private property, enabling both greater efficiency and public health protection.

Beyond these key elements, the plan also calls for:

  • Strengthened requirements for corrosion control including expanding the number and frequency of water sampling and broader review of water quality parameters to reduce leaching of lead from leaded solder and brass;
  • Targeted use of filters certified to remove lead to deliver additional protection;
  • Development of a publicly-available, comprehensive inventory of LSLs;
  • Requirements for property owners to cooperate with LSL replacement efforts, including a law authorizing water systems to access property, and to disclose the presence of LSLs to potential homebuyers and renters;
  • More aggressive efforts to evaluate and reduce lead in drinking water at schools and child-care facilities and to provide greater transparency, in part through the establishment of a centralized, electronic database of test results; and
  • A statewide campaign to address all sources of children’s exposure to lead, especially lead-based paint. that includes a Governor’s executive order declaring lead to be a public health threat.

Governor Murphy’s Comprehensive Statewide Plan

At the same press conference in which Jersey Water Work’s released its report, Governor Phil Murphy announced a comprehensive plan that implements key elements of those recommendations and goes beyond water to address paint sources of lead. The plan includes:

  • Proposing a $500 million bond to support LSL replacement and remediation of lead-based paint in homes.
  • Enabling utilities to use rates paid by customers to support LSL replacement on private property.
  • Directing state agencies to establish a publicly-available, comprehensive lead testing strategy for housing, schools, and child-care facilities. The strategies will ensure compliance with testing, disclosure, notification, remediation, and abatement requirements.
  • Improving the state’s inventory of LSLs and reinstating its Lead-Safe Housing Registry.
  • Ordering regulations to require schools to test for lead in water every three years and to publish the results in a state-wide database.
  • Complementing prevention efforts with more effective early detection and intervention for children with elevated blood lead levels.
  • Supporting legislation to require inspection and disclosure of lead-based paint hazards for housing at point of sale and for all rental homes built before 1978.
  • Directing state agencies to develop workforce training and career outreach programs to recruit younger generations into the trades that conduct the work.


Through the efforts of an innovative collaborative organization, an active task force, and the leadership of the Governor, New Jersey is poised to make significant strides towards better protecting children from lead. We understand that state legislators have already begun efforts to make the plans and recommendations a reality. Much work remains to be done, but we applaud the state’s efforts and encourage other states to draw from New Jersey’s example.

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