UNION COUNTY, NJ — As revelations of a full-blown lead crisis continue to sweep across New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie has mandated new regulatory measures to address elevated lead levels in school water systems, along with new legislation introduced by senate democrats that would strengthen the government’s role in lead remediation.
Christie’s lead remediation plan comes after many legislators and environmental groups had called upon the governor to act.
Christie has directed the New Jersey Department of Education to address concerns about elevated lead levels in school water systems by strengthening regulations that already require the provision of safe drinking water to mandate lead hazard water testing in schools. The new mandate will apply to approximately 3,000 facilities beginning in the next school year. The DOE will work with the Department of Environmental Protection to determine scientifically appropriate protocols to advise schools of how the testing should be performed, according to their particular needs.
Christie has also directed Education Commissioner David Hespe to require schools to publicly post all test results and immediately notify parents if testing shows elevated levels of lead. Schools also must provide parents with a description of any steps the school is taking to ensure safe drinking water will be made available to students.
Acting Health Commissioner Cathleen Bennett was directed by Christie to move forward with regulatory changes for intervention in cases of potential lead exposure by requiring earlier intervention when lower levels of lead are detected in a child — from 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood to between 5 and 9 micrograms, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control.
The change will allow public health officials and medical providers to intervene with education, case management, home visits and other steps as appropriate to address health hazards caused by lead exposure. Lawmakers are introducing legislation to help combat the issues of elevated lead levels throughout the state.
In addition, the governor called on the legislature to include an additional $10 million to his proposed fiscal year 2017 budget to support the plan.
The broad-based water infrastructure investment package plan introduced by the senate would increase the federal government’s role in water infrastructure investment, lead remediation, and drinking water protection.
Along with the proposed senate legislation comes a provision co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Cory Booker and U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, which will create a new $100 million federal grant program through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that would go toward assisting school districts across the country with testing their drinking water for potential lead contamination. This grant program was originally part of a 1988 bill called the Lead Contamination Control Act, although the legislative text outlining the program was later struck down by the courts due to a drafting error.
The bill is a part of the “True LEADership Act of 2016,” which will address the issues of elevated lead levels found in drinking water and older structures.
Booker and Rep. Donald Payne also introduced legislation that would require states to help schools test for lead if those states receive federal funding for safe water programs. Under the bill, schools with water systems exceeding the EPA’s lead action level must notify parents, the EPA administrator, and the state in which they are located.
Payne, who is a Newark native, said that he, along with 20 other members of congress, traveled to Flint during the lead crisis to assess the situation and to hear what residents experienced. “It was really horrific what I heard,” said Payne.
Payne said that he spoke to three city mayors once he returned to New Jersey. “I told them they needed to pay attention,” said Payne. “Newark is the third oldest city in the United States. If Flint is having a problem, then there is a good chance that Newark is having a problem. Four days later, the Newark school story broke.”
According to Payne, Newark has known about its lead issues since 2003 but that maintenance put into place to handle the issues fell apart. “It broke down over the years,” said Payne.
Payne said that the new legislation would be funded through the Safe Water Drinking Act. “We’re still getting co-sponsors for this legislation,” said Payne. “We are currently lobbying our republican colleagues. They don’t have a problem with it. It’s a process. It takes a lot of hard work from our colleagues on both sides and from the president. We’re going to stay at it. As problems pop us we’re going to see it more. We’re working hard to get support. You would think it would be a no-brainer, but down here in Washington things don’t work that way,” he said.
Both environmental groups and legislators have lauded Christie’s new legislation. “We applaud the governor’s decision to take on childhood lead prevention by supporting legislation that requires the Department of Health to use the Centers for Disease Control recommended standard of five micrograms per deciliter to identify children with blood lead levels,” said Staci Berger, president and CEO of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey, in a statement.
State Sen. Ronald Rice issued a statement, saying that he was pleased that Christie has acted. “I am glad the governor did not wait for the legislation to reach his desk,” said Rice. “These are important actions that will address the immediate need for testing and allow for early intervention for children exposed to lead. It is certainly encouraging that we are moving in a positive direction. However, we must continue the discussion about how to address our aging infrastructure, which is at the core of the lead-contamination problem.”
State Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz also praised the new measures. “Implementing a uniform state policy for testing and notifying parents of the presence of lead is critically important,” Ruiz said in a statement. “We are grateful that the governor is moving forward with this new policy. It will bring transparency to the process and, as a result, better ensure accountability of school districts that are entrusted with the safety of children.”
Payne maintains that elevated lead levels recently found in both Hamilton and West Orange is indicative of a much broader problem. “This is not just an issue in this area,” said Payne. “It’ll be across the country. We’ve seen it in Flint, Newark, and West Orange. And it’s coming to a town near you.”