Kearny’s annual road repaving program will likely be shelved this year as it takes a back seat to a gubernatorial mandate directing all New Jersey municipalities to identify and replace lead service lines that deliver potable water to homes.
Of the town’s approximately 7,800 water service lines, the town has thus far identified about 150 in need of replacement, 22 as non-lead and the rest still be to be determined.
The town’s paving program figures to be revived next season when contractors will be asked to merge the normal milling and resurfacing of local streets with the added responsibility of installing new lead-free pipes to avoid having to rip up streets a second time.
Town Administrator Stephen Marks said Neglia Engineering, the town’s consulting engineers, is in the process of finishing plans and specifications for the resurfacing of all or parts of 19 blocks earmarked for state funding for 2022 and replacing lead service lines that may be identified along those blocks.
But even if the town were to award a contract for the job by October, as now anticipated, Marks said Neglia feels it would be “unreasonable” to expect any paving to be done this year.
Here’s how Marks explained that position:
“There are about 600 households on the 19 blocks that need to be investigated (for possible lead content),” Marks said. “Veolia (formerly Suez, the town’s water utility operator) and its sub-contractor National Metering have only completed 228 investigations to date and have confirmed 50 lead service lines. Once the exploratory work is done and the lead lines are replaced, it will take about three to four months for the trenches to settle.”
Further complicating the situation, he said, is the fact that each service line has two components — the lateral, running from the middle of the street to a curbside control box where the water can be shut off and on, linked to a secondary line connecting to the water meter, typically found in the basement of the home.
Either both, one or none may be lead.
National Metering needs the occupant’s consent to access the house and check out the line in the basement, a process that can cause additional delays.
“Therefore, given the totality of the situation,” Marks continued, “it is nearly impossible to replace and pave this fall.”
“I think it is much more reasonable to assume the next six months will be exploratory work and lead service line replacement and the paving will occur next spring to summer,” Marks said. “I think it is more responsible to manage expectations and not get involved in ‘magical thinking’ of over-promising and under-delivering.”
An amendment to the state’s Safe Drinking Water Act law signed last year by Gov. Philip D. Murphy gives municipalities up to 10 years to complete the lead line ID and replacement at a minimal annual rate of 10% of the total volume of lead lines in each locality.
“Let’s not forget we’re addressing an important public health issue here, which trumps repaving of roads,” Marks said.
To help expedite getting into homes, National Metering has been sending written notices asking residents to call for inspections appointments and has also placed notices on front doors.
Beyond that, Marks said the town governing body is preparing to enact an ordinance authorizing Veolia and/or its agent to gain access to homes with permission of residents “but not necessarily the property owner.”
Cost of the replacement program for Kearny has been estimated by Veolia at between $25 million and $50 million, depending on how many lines it has to replace and the materials used in the process. For starters, Marks said the town hopes to tap $1.5 million remaining in its allocation of federal American Rescue Plan funds and whatever other outside grants may be available.
Using local funds would be a last resort, he added.
Michael Cerra, executive director of the New Jersey League of Municipalities, said all localities in the state are in the same boat of “having to identify some type of funding source that’s not relying on local property tax. It’s another example of the state imposing a non-funded mandate on towns.”
Conceivably, he said, municipalities could appeal to the New Jersey Local Mandates Council, a quasi-judicial body can overrule state legislation without appeal, “but there is not much appetite to oppose a law that is good public policy.”
Heather Sorge, program manager of Lead-Free NJ, a collaborative that pushes for a lead-free environment for all levels of American society, warned that, if left unchecked, “lead in drinking water (can lead to) behavioral and learning problems, slowed growth, and anemia in children. In adults, lead exposure causes cardiovascular effects, increased blood pressure, decreased kidney function, and reproductive problems in both men and women.
“We applaud the emphasis our state leaders are taking to address these issues in our water infrastructure and within our homes,” Sorge said. “New Jersey is moving closer to a reality where no resident will suffer the toxic effects of lead, whether in the paint in their homes or in the water they drink.”
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Ron Leir | For The Observer
Ron Leir has been a newspaperman since the late ’60s, starting his career with The Jersey Journal, having served as a summer reporter during college. He became a full-time scribe in February 1972, working mostly as a general assignment reporter in all areas except sports, including a 3-year stint as an assistant editor for entertainment, features, religion, etc.
He retired from the JJ in May 2009 and came to The Observer shortly thereafter.
He is also a part-time actor, mostly on stage, having worked most recently with the Kearny-based WHATCo. and plays Sunday softball in Central Park, New York