TRENTON, N.J. — New Jersey’s first attempt to put together a comprehensive inventory of the type of lead pipes that caused a drinking water crisis in the state’s biggest city is underway, and so far has counted around 160,000 of the potentially toxic pipes at homes and businesses across the state, according to public records.
That figure is likely to climb as more data comes in. The data collected by the Department of Environmental Protection includes a mix of complete and partial results from about three-quarters of the state’s nearly 600 water systems. A 2016 American Water Works Association survey estimated that twice as many of New Jersey’s homes and businesses get water through lead service lines.
The state began the inventory in January, but the effort took on new urgency after residents in part of Newark were advised to stop drinking their tap water because of concerns about lead poisoning.
Millions of Americans get their drinking water through old lead pipes, but experts say any danger from those lines can be reduced or eliminated by treating the water with anti-corrosion agents.
In Newark, that treatment stopped working and the Environmental Protection Agency raised concerns this year that filters given to residents were also failing to properly remove lead. Since then, the city has said tests have shown 99 percent of the filters working properly and has begun a $120 million project to replace lead pipes.
A handful of other states have begun either voluntary or required lead pipe inventories in the wake of similar lead crises in Flint, Michigan, and Washington D.C.
Only five states require inventories or maps of their locations, according to the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators. A handful of other states have set up voluntary reporting.
“It is an important step in better understanding the scope of the challenge and in setting priorities,” said Tom Neltner, the chemicals policy director at the Environmental Defense Fund.
Neltner also called on the state to publish its inventory and identify the systems that haven’t responded so far.
The Associated Press obtained the information in response to a request made through the state’s Open Public Records Act.
New Jersey doesn’t have a plan to replace all its lead pipes. There’s a consensus that the top hurdle is cost, which the state has said could top $2 billion.
The data shows some of the state’s biggest and oldest cities that were suspected or known to have lead service lines in fact have tens of thousands of lead pipes. Among those cities are Newark, Jersey City, Camden and Trenton.
But the inventory also lists smaller towns that have reported thousands of lead service lines as well, including Belleville, East Orange, Garfield and Hackensack in northern New Jersey, and Stone Harbor along the southern coast, which reported 1,800 lines.
Department of Environmental Protection associate commissioner Kati Angarone said in a statement that flushing pipes after water has sat for hours can reduce lead exposure significantly.
She added that chemicals to control the corrosion of lead in pipes is used across the state and has been a “effective means” of preventing lead rom leaching into drinking water.
That’s not sufficient action, said Jeff Tittel, the director of the state’s Sierra Club.
“It’s 20 years overdue, probably more like 30 years overdue,” Tittel said. “The big question is what does DEP do about it?”
Newark is replacing roughly 18,000 lead service lines. Michigan is replacing its 500,000 lead service lines.
New Jersey lawmakers have begun holding hearings on the issue. During recent public testimony Democratic state Sen. Brian Stack sounded frustrated and called on his colleagues to come up with a solution to the problem.
“I think we really need to take the bull by the horns,” Stack said. “The fact that we’re still taking about lead pipes and lead paint in 2019 in New jersey is a sad commentary.”