President Donald Trump signed into law legislation that reauthorizes the Safe Drinking Water Act for the first time in 20 years.
“Part of this bill basically doubles the money that goes to states and towns to upgrade their drinking water infrastructure,” said Rep. Frank Pallone.
The reauthorization increases funding from $1 billion to $1.95 billion through 2021.
Pallone, who helped get the bill passed, says water infrastructure was put in the spotlight after the Flint water crisis where tens of thousands of residents were likely exposed to lead in drinking water.
“After Flint there were a lot of reports about old systems in New Jersey,” Pallone said.
Much of New Jersey’s water infrastructure is well past its life span. Some water pipes are more than 100 years old.
“They leak. You know, in New Jersey, in our cities, 30 percent of the water in the pipes leak,” said New Jersey Sierra Club Director Jeff Tittel.
The bipartisan legislation will now require utilities to provide more drinking water quality reports consumers. The government will now keep a national inventory of lead service lines and develop a plan to replace them. And, $100 million in grant money will be made available to get safe drinking water to areas impacted by natural disasters.
“Like Sandy. For example, this area in Laurence Harbor was really negatively impacted by Sandy, so we want to upgrade the systems so that they’re not down in the case of a natural disaster,” Pallone said.
There will also be a grant program to replace leaded drinking water fountains in schools.
“People don’t realize it, but lead is a neurotoxin that has a direct impact on children and leads to developmental problems,” Tittel said.
According to state data, in 2016 more than 4,800 children in New Jersey were found to have elevated levels of lead in their blood.
“We have a law that we passed in New Jersey that every school has to monitor for lead, and it’s close to about a third of the schools have shown signs of lead, especially in older schools in older communities,” said Tittel.
At Memorial Elementary in Laurence Harbor, a water quality report shows lead was found in 2017. The principal says it’s a problem in districts across the state.
“Something like this is a hidden thing, but I think it needed to be addressed, and it was,” said school principal Raymond Payton.
“Remember, when we’re talking about contaminants, we’re not talking about something you’re actually going to see. This school here, in Old Bridge, they actually spent the money on their own to upgrade the fountains, but a lot of times schools don’t have the money and it’s an extra burden on the taxpayer so we’re trying to get some federal funds to help,” said Pallone.
Environmentalists say the Safe Drinking Water Act is a big step in fixing a very serious problem.