Lead. Lead in our drinking water is scary and concerning. And rightfully so. After Flint, Mich. and challenges in Newark, it’s an undeniably real and present public health crisis. But to properly address the lead issue and ensure the safety of the public, one must fix the actual source of the lead in our water.  

In most cases, lead contamination happens right before it enters our homes – in the pipe between the water main in the street and the house or within the house itself.

With that in mind, for quite a few years now, the Passaic Valley Water Commission has been pursuing a plan to replace three reservoirs, Levine in Paterson and New Street and Great Notch in Woodland Park with concrete storage tanks at the cost of upwards of $150 million to ratepayers. The reason is a United States Environmental Protection Agency rule, commonly referred to as the LT2 Rule. In summary, it addresses concerns about microorganisms and animal waste contaminating the water in the reservoirs and has been the public reason for the project for years. Until now.

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Late last year, PVWC and the three ownership cities – Paterson, Clifton and Passaic – suddenly changed their justification for the tanks. Lead. Yes, lead is now the pubic reason for the tanks. A change from just a few months ago. The Commission sent out a mailer to residents of Paterson last fall.  It depicted an old, dirty bucket and asked residents if they would drink from it if it had been outside for a week. If that question truly represents the alternative to tanks, then PVWC customers have been drinking from that bucket for decades. Disingenuous to say the least.  

The Commission’s argument is that phosphates can’t be added to the reservoirs to reduce lead. However, have they considered treating the water currently with phosphates at the same time as they provide chlorine disinfection - on the way out the reservoir? If the concern is so urgent – act now. In addition, adding phosphates does not replace lead pipes – the true source of the problem. Nor does it educate the public to evaluate the plumbing system in their own homes.

It was refreshing to read in The Record last month that PVWC is looking to the State for $26 million to replace lead pipes in their system, specifically in Paterson. That is a step in the right direction and will be money well spent. 

As Mayor of Woodland Park, both the New Street and Great Notch Reservoirs sit in our town. They both lie on Rifle Camp Road adjacent to two county parks – Garret Mountain Reservation and Rifle Camp Park. That area of town still provides a rural feel when traveling by car, by bike, or on foot. The aesthetics of both water bodies and the surrounding forested areas is like nothing in the area. The homes near the reservoirs have some of the highest property values in the Borough. This project would wreak havoc on Garret Mountain, not to mention on the ratepayers throughout the PVWC service area who will be asked to foot the bill for the entire $150 million - plus overruns and interest. That’s why all 23 of the serviced municipalities have formally objected to the plan. The only three who haven’t are the three ownership cities. 

Do we really want to pay $150 million, scar scenic Garret Mountain, adversely impact property values, build unattractive tanks and still not solve the lead problem? Lead is a public health crisis and PVWC must use the funds to replace lead pipes throughout its service area, to educate the public and possibly even provide filters to their lead affected customers. This way our kids, especially those under the age of 6, pregnant women (who are most at risk of lead poisoning) and all our families are safe. And then we can discuss the long-term solution to meet the EPA LT2 mandate.

Keith Kazmark is mayor of the Borough of Woodland Park.