How 1 N.J. district has beaten its dirty water problem — for 14 years

by Greg Adomaitis, originally posted on March 31, 2016


CAMDEN – Every year for the past 14 years, Camden City public schools have had to include a special item in their budget — about $75,000 for water coolers and paper cups.

The cost of providing faculty and staff with clean drinking water, school district officials said, far outweighs the expenses that would be needed to address the underlying issue on a more permanent basis — replacing the aging infrastructure that’s causing lead to leak into the city’s public water.

While the issues of lead-contaminated water in New Jersey’s largest school district of Newark only bubbled to the surface within the past month and have been thrust into the spotlight by legislators and environmentalists, the problems in Camden have been going on for more than a decade.

“The challenge is with the pipes in many of our older buildings. Over half of district buildings were constructed before 1928,” Camden City schools spokesman Brendan Lowe said last week.

And fixing those pipes in Camden or elsewhere isn’t likely to happen any time soon, officials say.

The health impacts of ingesting the lead, especially among young people, can range from growth, intelligence and behavior problems to affecting attention and other psychological issues, according to the American Psychological Association.

Between August 1999 and February 2002, testing of lead levels in city school district drinking water revealed levels that could be dangerous to students’ health. According to a 2002 Philadelphia Inquirer article, parts per billion climbed from tens to hundreds. Federal guidelines recommend action to be taken if tests reveal concentration greater than 20 ppb in a 250 mL sample.

Water fountains were shut off at older affected Camden schools and bottled water has been made available to the entire district since 2002.

“This solution — along with flushing systems in our older buildings and filtration systems in our newer buildings — has worked successfully for students and staff to date,” Lowe said, adding that he’s not aware of any plans to deviate from the bottled water provisions.

All but five city schools had water foundations shut off or removed. The schools that were not affected were ones that have been built within the last decade and have filtration systems built into them, Lowe said.

The flushing system, put in place in about 20 of the district’s older buildings, is tested every three months. Lowe said flushing system tests are done regularly, with results “reported internally unless elevated levels of lead are found.”

Asked about the cost of the flushing systems, Lowe said the price tag was “built into the cost of building the schools,” which were constructed by the state’s Schools Development Authority.

“While we believe students and staff have easy access to drinking water, we still are looking for opportunities to either significantly renovate some of our oldest school buildings and construct new school buildings so our students attend school in 21st-century learning facilities, as we set out in our strategic plan, the Camden Commitment,” Lowe said.

New Jersey Sierra Club Director Jeff Tittel said that as the cast iron conduits with lead joints age, the lead can start seeping into the water supply. While it’s possible to place “slip lines” within the pipes or add chemicals to treat the water, outright replacement is an “expensive problem to fix.”

“There is a serious problem with lead in urban areas,” said  Tittel. “One positive of the tragedy of lead in Flint, (Michigan) is now people are paying attention.”

The cost statewide would add up to around $8 billion, Tittel said, adding that figuring out who can foot the bill for the project — besides passing the buck on to ratepayers — remains an ongoing issue.

“You have old pipes that go back to when the city was first developed,” Tittel said of Camden, where the private company that recently began overseeing operations and maintenance of the infrastructure declined to comment on the source of Camden’s water.

This week, three legislators including state Senate President Steve Sweeney, announced a proposal to provide $3 million to reimburse schools for water testing as well as another $20 million in state aid for schools with lead pipes and other fixtures so the schools can install filters.

U.S. Rep. Donald Norcross is joining the charge at the federal level, having recently sponsored an amendment to the current federal budget proposal that would dedicate $3.13 billion to the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Revolving Fund and $19.8 million to the Center for Disease Control’s Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program.

“I’m just hearing about [Camden using bottled water] because I asked, when Flint got hit, I said, ‘Do we have this issue?” And I didn’t hear about this. Needless to say I’m torqued,” Norcross said during a recent editorial board meeting with NJ Advance Media.

“But I don’t want to overreact until we find out the facts. Is it bottled water because of lead or are there just not good pipes there? Lead is not the only contaminant in water these days,” he continued.


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