PATERSON, NJ – A permanent fix may be on the way for Patersonians facing water quality issues.
Since the late 1980s, the Passaic Valley Water Commission (PVWC) has replaced about 34,800 underground utility-owned lead service lines in its coverage area and has about 200 pipes left.
But, about 15,000 homes in Paterson, Clifton, Passaic, Prospect Park, North Arlington and Lodi still have customer-owned lead service lines, which are small pipes that connect properties to water mains.
In an effort to accelerate pipe replacements – something that can cost property owners upwards of $5,000 – the PVWC plans to launch a program that’ll allow customers to do so for free.
The program could bring much-needed relief to neighborhoods like the First Ward, where Councilman Michael Jackson said he’s collected complaints from residents regarding “horrible” water conditions and believes “everything possible should be done” to resolve the issue.
“Residents are entitled to safe, clean water,” said Jackson. “The poor infrastructure desperately needs to be upgraded.”
Jackson recently supplied over 200 cases of water to a half-dozen households that have reported poor quality water coming from their taps, including the McCoy family, who said they’ve been grappling with the issue for nearly four years.
Ameerah McCoy and her mother, Mildred, say water at their Granite Avenue home has been discolored, cloudy and murky, which has caused them to only use bottled water for cooking, bathing, laundry and drinking.
On a given week, they’ll spend between $50 to $60 purchasing cases of water, though in recent months they’ve shelled out less due to COVID-19-related limits placed on quantities at stores, she said.
And, the family said they aren’t the only ones on the block experiencing issues with water, which the McCoys believe is caused by “old rusty pipes in the ground that need to be replaced.”
There are at least six other households in the neighborhood that have poor quality water and some neighbors have reported the water aggravates their skin, while others have reportedly suffered from stomach aches caused by consuming the water, Ameerah said.
According to the PVWC, they launched an investigation after receiving a complaint regarding discolored water from the McCoys in 2018. They contacted the utility company again in May and workers “went out to service the issue, flushed water mains in the area and are still working to find the root cause of the problem," a PVWC spokesperson said.
But with the issue still unresolved, the McCoys said they feel as though their concerns have fallen on deaf ears and that the utility company, as well as the city, has been unresponsive to their pleas for help.
“Everyone’s general response has been to either pass the issue to someone else in the city or listen to us and take notes, but never get back to us,” Ameerah said. “No one has offered us any alternative options or solutions. It has been dead silent.”
Over the past few months, she said, “it seems like this issue has fallen to the wayside again, due to the recent voter fraud and COVID-19.”
While the McCoys are aware that some of the pipes are owned by homeowners and customers are responsible for the cost of replacing them, Mildred believes “the issue does not solely fall under the responsibility of the homeowners,” especially when several homes in the neighborhood are facing the same issue.
“Having clean water is more important now than ever,” Ameerah said.
PVWC Executive Director Joseph Bella declined to provide a comment to TAPInto Paterson.
PWVC Pursues State Funding
In cities such as Paterson – where the PVWC said nearly one in six homes tested in 2016 and 2017 had elevated lead levels – line replacement programs are critical to making drinking water safe.
Almost 90% of the city’s housing was built before 1978, when lead was still commonly used in paint, pipe solder and other household products, and are more likely to have plumbing that contains lead in service lines, pipes, faucets or fixtures, according to an Oct. 2019 report by Jersey Water Works.
Utility companies around the state have spent the last few decades engaged in pipe replacement projects, but upgrading customer-owned lines has proven “to be a significant hurdle, particularly for low-income property owners,” the report said.
When it comes to water quality, Paterson faces “a perfect storm combination of aging water infrastructure, old housing stock and a disadvantaged population,” according to a New Jersey Future analysis, “The Power of the Passaic: Paterson’s Birth and Rebirth Along the River.”
In January, the PVWC requested $26 million from the state for its no-cost lead service line replacement program and is in the process of applying for a grant through the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.
According to Caryn Shinske, a DEP spokesperson, they are working with the PVWC on the application and funding is awarded by the agency on a rolling basis.
Lindel Jones, a spokesperson for the PVWC, said the utility “does not know the exact amount” it could potentially receive from the state “as there is last minute paperwork that has to be finished.”
“We are hopeful to know in the next couple of months,” she said.
“Replacing all lead service lines (customer and utility owned) is an important step to reducing the risk of lead in drinking water. For the customer owned lines, we will be going out to bid the project in early winter and hope to start work sometime in January or shortly thereafter,” Jones said.
Currently, PVWC offers a “low-cost, zero-interest replacement program” to help customers who still have lead service lines.
The utility company is also poised to begin a long-delayed project to replace the open Levine Reservoir with water storage tanks, which it says will prevent treated drinking water from becoming polluted with bacteria, animal waste, fecal matter and other contaminants. The tanks will also allow the water to be treated to reduce the risk of lead leaching into the water once delivered to customers, according to the PVWC.
Built in 1885, the Levine Reservoir is one of the few reservoirs of its kind still in use in the U.S. In 2009, the EPA ordered all open reservoirs be removed from service because of the risks to public health and safety.
The project received final approval by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection in July.
Jones said, “Although PVWC still has a few permits to secure, groundbreaking is expected this autumn. It is anticipated construction will be completed within two years.”
Murphy Prioritizes Lead Contamination
Leach leaching from pipes into homes, businesses and schools has long been recognized as a cause of unsafe levels of the contaminant in New Jersey’s drinking water, according to a report from Jersey Water Works.
In urban areas, water quality varies from building to building and in many cases, the issues stem from pipes and plumbing, rather than a utility’s treatment plant or distribution system and the only permanent fix is replacing lines, the report said.
With almost two-thirds of housing stock in New Jersey was constructed prior to the ban on lead, addressing water contamination has become a priority for Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration.
New Jersey Future, a non-profit advocacy group, found that lead service lines have been reported in 104 water systems, as of August 2019, potentially exposing “some portion” of over 5 million residents who live in the service areas. The organization also put together a map showing where lead pipes are located.
Chris Sturm, managing director of New Jersey Future, said, “These lead service lines have the potential to put everyone, particularly children and infants, at risk. Fortunately, this risk can be managed by effective corrosion control, flushing and filters, and ultimately by the total replacement of lead service lines.”
New Jersey Future believes the most effective and efficient way to replace the pipes is through “comprehensive state legislation” because “the cost of replacement can be reduced by approximately 25% when entire neighborhoods are replaced at once, compared to a scattered, house-by-house approach.”
Following the water crisis last year in Newark, Murphy announced his commitment to addressing lead issues in the Garden State.
In October 2019, the governor and Jersey Water works held a joint press conference and said their goal is to fully replace the state’s estimated 350,000 lead service lines within ten years, a project estimated to cost $2.3 billion.
In the governor’s newly-proposed budget, $60 million is set aside to pay for lead service line replacements in the state. Under Murphy’s initial budget unveiled in February – before the pandemic struck - $80 million was allocated.
PVWC, City Continue Outreach
In Paterson, Jones said the PVWC and city “have partnered on several occasions to get the word out about lead in the water.”
Last fall, Mayor Andre Sayegh launched an outreach initiative called “Get the Lead Out,” which aimed to raise awareness about the effects of lead exposure. The effort coincided with National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week.
Lead can cause serious health issues, including damage to the brain and kidneys, and interfere with the production of blood cells that carry oxygen throughout the body. The greatest risk of lead exposure is to infants, young children and pregnant women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
If a customer suspects they have lead pipes, the PVWC recommends testing the water and offers free testing kits that can determine if a home’s water has elevated lead levels.
Know a story we should share with readers? Email editor Steve Lenox and tell him about it.