UNION, NJ – Residents from the 20th Legislative District attended a panel discussion with representatives from the area’s water supplier and governmental agencies focused on water safety, specifically on concerns about lead levels in the area's drinking water.

“Water has created an incredible dialogue in our communities over the past few months as we’ve seen the situation in a neighboring district,” said event host State Senator Joseph Cryan, referring to the water crisis in nearby Newark, which has affected some neighborhoods in Hillside.   “Through conversations we’ve had with residents, we understood there’s a lot of education to be done.  One thing is clear, education is a big part of this process.”  The 20th Legislative District includes the communities of Elizabeth, Union, Roselle, and Hillside.  Cryan introduced panel participants as representatives from New Jersey American Water, the Department of Environmental Protection, and the Department of Health.

New Jersey American Water is the primary service provider for the 20th Legislative District.  Robert R. Schaefer, Senior Director Central Operations, New Jersey American Water, said American Water is the largest publicly traded water and wastewater utility in the United States.  In New Jersey, they serve 625,000 customers in 188 municipalities, about one-third of the state.  Schaefer said in this area, over 90% of water comes from surface water sources, with the remainder coming from ground water sources.  Legislative District 20, in New Jersey American Water’s Central Operations area, serves 56 municipalities, with two primary water treatment plants – the Raritan Millstone Plant in Bridgewater and the Canal Road Plant in Franklin Township

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Scott Baxter-Green, Water Quality and Environmental Compliance Manager at New Jersey American Water, said source water (rivers, lakes, groundwater) rarely contain measurable amounts of lead and any lead present is removed using traditional water treatment technologies.  The primary source of lead in tap water is through the corrosion of lead sources in home plumbing.

In a diagram illustrating the water pipes leading up to and in a home, Baxter-Green said the water main, municipal water service line and the water shut-off valve are owned and maintained by the water company.  Pipes from the curb to the home are private water service lines and are the homeowner’s responsibility.

“The best and most cost-effective way to ensure you’re getting no lead in your water is, first thing in the morning or when you get home from work or anytime the water’s been laying stagnant for a while, just let the cold water run for 2-3 minutes and that will flush out any of the water in the lead pipes and then you’ll know you’re getting water from the main in the street which we know has no lead in it,” said Baxter-Green.

“Lead is not usually a source water issue,” said Shawn LaTourette, Chief of Staff, Department of Environmental Protection.  “So, when we talk about ‘is the water safe as it leaves the treatment plant?’, lead is not a concern.  The problem is that lead can be picked up by the water as it makes its way into the home.”  LaTourette said lead can be in the solder holding pipes together or in the pipes themselves.  “So, often, what can be mistaken is that the water that’s being delivered isn’t safe,” added LaTourette.  “That’s not the issue.  The issue is the infrastructure on our own properties and within our own homes.”

LaTourette said one of the responsibilities of the Department of Environmental Protection is to ensure that water purveyors throughout the state, including New Jersey American Water, are performing all of their responsibilities to the letter of the law and meet standards set in the federal and New Jersey Safe Drinking Water Acts.   “These companies are responsible to the DEP for us to make sure they are living up to their responsibilities that they are providing safe drinking water,” said LaTourette.  “One of the primary things we look out for is whether a water system has a ‘lead action level exceedance’.  He said New Jersey American Water has not had a ‘lead action level exceedance’, but upwards of 60 water systems throughout the state do, and there are a number of actions they must take to bring their levels to appropriate levels.  “We at DEP hold water systems to account in order to ensure that the expectation you all have that when you turn on the tap that water is safe and reliable.”

Also on the panel was Christine Sadovy, Deputy Chief of Staff at the Board of Public Utilities (BPU).  She said the BPU is a regulator of investor-owned water utilities, regulating rates and service.  “Our responsibility is to ensure you as a customer are getting reliable service and also just and reasonable rates.”

In attendance at the meeting, Dr. Siobhan Pappas, Coordinator for the Childhood Lead Program for the State of New Jersey, said New Jersey is one of ten states, plus Washington DC, who have universal screenings, mandating that every child at aged one and aged two are tested for an elevated blood lead level.  “If a child is found to have an elevated blood lead level, the child receives in-home case management from the local health department, including education on risk reduction and making sure the child gets any referrals for services they may need.”  Pappas said local health departments may also do an environmental inspection to find the source of the lead.

“We know that water can be a contributory factor, but we found that elevated blood lead levels in children is predominantly home based from either lead dust from lead paint or lead paint chips,” added Pappas.

LaTourette said there are about 3,600 active public water systems in New Jersey, from large systems, like Newark's, to a system of just one school house.  "It varies," said LaTourette.

During the question and answer period, Union Mayor Michele Delisfort asked, “for those residents who own older homes, what recommendation would you give as to how to make sure their homes do not have excessive lead, in addition to the recommendations you made about flushing out the water.”

“In our territory, the lead service lines are usually in homes built before 1930,” said Baxter-Green.  He said doing a lead swab test will determine if the pipes contains lead.  “But to be perfectly honest, water pipes that have been in place since the 1930s, have a pretty significant build-up of either calcium from hard water or orthophosphate that we add to the water.  In most cases it’s best just to leave it alone and leave that coating in place.”

“The best thing you can do is get your water tested,” added Baxter-Green.  “See if you have an issue.  If there’s no issue, the best thing to do is just let the water run anytime it’s been stagnant for six hours.”

LaTourette reiterated that flushing of water is the most effective method for reducing the risk of lead in the water.  “The thing to keep in mind is that no two systems are created equal, much like no two homes are created equal.  Because this is largely an issue that occurs when the water leaves the system and enters onto that private property where that lead service line in the plumbing could be present. That’s why with the flushing of water you’re allowing the build-up of lead that occurs when water’s just sitting in the pipe to leave the system."

"An individual homeowner, to remove doubt, to have the most comfort possible, the very best thing you can do is get a water test from your home, a lab test.  Then you would know exactly what the conditions are on your specific home," added LaTourette.  The DEP and New Jersey American Water, he said, provides information on the system as a whole, thought to be representative.


Editor's Note:  In the interest of transparency, TAPinto Union's owner/publisher, Kathy Cryan, is married to State Senator Joe Cryan.