Congressman Chris Smith: Trenton Water Works needs to be lead free in 10 years

By Sulaiman Abdur-Rahman

Trenton Water Works should be lead free in 10 years, argues Congressman Chris Smith of Hamilton Township.

The Republican lawmaker has introduced bipartisan legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives that would require large public water systems like TWW to replace all lead service lines within a decade.

“Congress must act on this critical legislation that’s long overdue and can make drinking water safer for generations of Americans,” Smith said in a press statement last month. “People need to know the water from the kitchen tap they drink or cook with is clean and safe for themselves and their families. Lead service line replacement is needed to give them that peace of mind.”

Democratic U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas has co-sponsored the legislation, formally known as the Get the Lead Out Act or H.R. 7918, which has been referred to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

“No community should have to worry that their drinking water is tainted with lead,” Cuellar said in a press statement. “Any amount of lead in drinking water can have serious developmental and health impacts for children.”

Trenton Water Works serves 225,000 people in the capital city and Ewing, Hamilton, Lawrence and Hopewell townships. The utility has a long history of documented shortcomings, including a record 13 violations in 2018.

Trenton is under two administrative consent orders with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection requiring the city to make necessary improvements to the public water system, including the replacement of so-called LSL or lead service lines.

DEP sued TWW earlier this year due to the city’s failure to comply with the ACO mandates. A Superior Court judge, however, denied DEP’s request for preliminary injunctive relief that would have required TWW to replace 7% of lead service lines annually.

Jeffrey Wagenbach, an attorney representing TWW, argued the city is “working hard” to improve the water utility’s operations and maintenance.

New Jersey Deputy Attorney General Robert J. Kinney in court papers argued that Trenton’s shortcomings in LSL replacements “exposes residents’ drinking water to potential lead contamination and therefore places residents of the affected communities at continued risk of irreparable harm.”

Judge Robert Lougy said he didn’t “endorse” the city’s failure to meet mandates of the consent orders but was confident city officials “are not continuing to have reporting above the permissible levels of lead in the water.”

Smith, who is seeking re-election to a 21st term representing Central Jersey, introduced his Get the Lead Out Act in the U.S. House of Representatives on July 31.

Smith wants to amend the federal Safe Drinking Water Act by increasing federal contributions to state revolving loan funds from $1.95 billion in fiscal year 2021 to $6.6 billion and authorizing another $6.6 billion to be appropriated in fiscal year 2022. These funds may be used to finance water infrastructure projects that either “address the most serious risk to human health” or are necessary to ensure compliance with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

Public water systems like TWW are eligible for federal EPA grants to help finance “investments necessary for the public water system to comply with the requirements” of the federal SDWA. The current law authorized $60 million in such appropriations to occur in each of the fiscal years 2017 through 2021. Smith, however, wants to bolster the federal grants to authorize $80 million in federal appropriations to public water systems and other eligible entities during fiscal years 2021 and 2022.

Smith’s bill, if enacted into law, would also authorize $10 million in appropriations for fiscal years 2021 and 2022 to help the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to enforce the mandates.

H.R. 7918 would require community water systems serving a population of 3,300 or more to submit a plan to the EPA on how it would inventory and replace all the lead service lines of the community water system, including the portions of such lead service lines that are owned by the community water system and any remaining portions of such lead service lines.

The plan would have to be developed and submitted within one year of Smith’s bill becoming law, and then the public water system would have to replace its leaded pipes and fixtures within 10 years if not granted an extension to the statutory deadline.

Lead service lines are water pipes and metal fittings containing a significant quantity of lead, a toxic element harmful to the well-being of humans and animals.

The consumption of lead-contaminated drinking water may lead to adverse health effects, including reproductive problems in adults and lower IQ and hyperactivity for children, according to the EPA.

A lead-free product is one that contains almost no traces of lead, if any at all.

Replacing lead service lines with lead-free alternatives means the new fittings shall not contain more than 0.2% lead when used with respect to solder and flux and any presence of such lead shall have a weighted average not exceeding 0.25% of the toxic element when used with respect to the wetted surfaces of pipes, pipe fittings, plumbing fittings and fixtures, according to federal law.

If Smith’s bill never becomes law, the City of Trenton appears to be taking steps on its own to improve TWW.

On Thursday, Trenton City Council voted 5-2 to approve $50 million in bonds that will help the city replace the Pennington Reservoir with a network of up to five storage tanks, along with thousands of antiquated meters throughout the distribution system.

Trenton’s governing body previously voted 5-2 to approve $25 million in bonds for lead service line replacements. City Council, however, still refuses to support a $33.5 million bond package that would finance improvements to the TWW water filtration plant.

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