The ambitious plan to replace (all) lead pipes in N.J. in the next 10 years

Politicians have a knack for being vaguely grandiose — it’s a way to promise the world without providing key details, like cost or a timeline.

Gov. Phil Murphy didn’t do that Thursday. In announcing his desire to solve the lead poisoning problem in the state with the signing of three bills, Murphy threw down the target and the target date — starting with lead in the water.

“The nation’s headlines have been fixed on the issue of drinking water contaminated by decades-old lead service lines,” he said. “Our goal is nothing less than (have) every single lead water service line across New Jersey — and, by the way, there are roughly 300,000 of them — replaced within the next 10 years.

“Under these new laws, that’s not going to just be wishful thinking. It’s going to be an achievable and affordable reality. We’re going to ensure that every water service line that contains lead is properly catalogued, and then removed. And we’re going to make it easier for all communities, including those with publicly owned water systems, to finance this work.”

It’s an ambitious goal, but one that is achievable.

Murphy pointed to — and saluted — Newark for its efforts to replace all 20,000 lead service lines that run under its streets and sidewalks in approximately two years. It’s a goal the city will reach.

The state has to, Murphy said. The stakes are too high. The damage that comes from lead exposure — both in water and in paint — is catastrophic and life-changing.

Murphy compared the problem to the pandemic.

“Lead is also a public health crisis,” he said. “The harms of lead exposure are widely documented. In a child, lead can cause lifelong damage, impacting brain and neurological development.”

Murphy said studies show children with lead poisoning are more likely to require additional health care and special education supports — and that they are seven times more likely to drop out of school and become involved with the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

Murphy said it doesn’t have to be that way. This is not an invisible enemy.

“We know the sources of exposures,” he said. “We know what they are, and we know how to eliminate them. And, just as we have coordinated across all levels of government to combat the coronavirus pandemic, we are working across the whole of government to combat the lead crisis.”

And, while most of the attention of the crisis has come out of urban areas, Murphy said lead poisoning is a statewide problem — mainly because our housing stock is so old. Two-thirds of New Jersey’s housing predates 1980 — or long before the dangers of lead were known, and steps were taken to combat it.

“This is a crisis that has been building for decades and in some cases, centuries,” Murphy said.

And all over the state.

“The risks of lead exposure run broad and deep,” he said. “There are countless homes across our suburbs and rural areas where lead exists. Even in some of our oldest communities, the most stately and well-preserved homes, homes from bygone eras with rich architectural histories hide this potentially deadly secret.”

Of course, the greatest impact is in urban areas — where more rental properties mean less attention to learning about and fixing the issue.

“In many older homes and apartments, years of opening and closing doors and windows, where jams and sashes may be coated in decades of layers of lead-based paints, fine particulates containing lead can be easily blown around, unknowingly inhaled,” Murphy said.

“So, I’m equally honored today to sign legislation requiring regular inspections for and the remediation or abatement of lead paint in rental properties and creating a new lead-based paint hazard education program. So, tenants know their rights and landlords know their responsibilities.”

It’s all part of the program. All part of a 10-year goal that was set.

“We are making New Jersey a clear leader and a model for the nation of protecting our families and children from the dangers of lead,” he said.