BY MICHAEL OLOHAN
OF NORTHERN VALLEY PRESS
HAWORTH, N.J.—Within weeks of beginning an expedited lead service line replacement program to remove 2,400 Suez-owned water lines in 2019, the utility has proposed a pilot program that would permit it to replace a customer’s lead pipe for a portion of what the job normally costs.
The catch is a surcharge to make up the difference in cost. This will be attached to the utility bills of all 200,000 customers in Bergen and Hudson counties.
Suez’s proposal for a homeowner lead service line replacement program is now in the hands of the state Board of Public Utilities, which will determine whether to approve, reject, or modify the program.
According to Suez spokeswoman Debra Vial, this would be a pilot, and not offered system-wide. “Customers would be notified well in advance of any offer or work,” she said.
“The utility’s service line and the property-owners line connect at [the curb box]. When we dig here, they can see both sides of the line to assess the materials in the line,” she added.
If the utility is replacing a Suez-owned lead line and determines the customer’s line is also lead, the customer will have the option of paying Suez $1,000 to remove the line.
Suez proposes to contact customers in advance of any replacement of pipes in areas where they are working.
The next BPU meeting is April 18, although no agenda for the meeting was posted by press time.
Suez estimates a typical lead line replacement, which requires digging up the street and replacing a decades-old lead service pipe, costs $3,000 to $8,000.
If the program is approved by BPU, the pilot program would span two years. A surcharge cost is not provided in the proposal.
Suez states other customers with lead service lines, where Suez is not performing a replacement, have the option of replacing a line at their own expense, or not at all.
Suez announced in March it would spend $15 million in 2019 to replace nearly 25 percent of utility-owned lead lines in an expedited replacement program, initially focused on eight municipalities, including Teaneck, Rutherford, Hackensack, Ridgefield Park, Bogota, North Bergen, Union City and West New York.
Alpine, Old Tappan, River Vale
Other towns with “smaller pockets” of lead lines to get priority include Old Tappan, River Vale, Alpine, Little Ferry, Wallington, Lodi, and Upper Saddle River.
When contacted by Northern Valley Press, mayors in Alpine and Old Tappan said they were not aware of Suez’s expedited program but were generally pleased the utility would be removing lead pipes in their town.
River Vale Mayor Glen Jasionowski said he was not contacted by Suez, either, and had not heard from any resident reporting high lead levels.
In January, Suez revealed that 16 of 108 home water samples tested above the federal drinking water standard of 15 parts per billion, and offered customers more information on its website to find out if their lines were lead. Suez said then the high lead level reading were scattered throughout Hudson and Bergen counties.
The utility also offered tips for reducing lead levels in drinking water. Customers can visit suezwq.com or write Suez at sueznjcustserv[at]suez-na.com.
In a March response to the state Department of Environmental Protection letter of non-compliance citing Suez for high lead levels in drinking water, Suez provided the following estimates of lead service lines.
Suez: 23,623 ‘goosenecks’
It listed Suez lead service lines at 8,541; company lead goosenecks (short pipes connecting a main to a service line) at 23,623, Suez unknown service lines at 7,060, customer-known lead service lines at 2,258; and customer unknown lines at 153,155 lines.
The customer-owned lines go from the curb line into the home or business.
Suez said it has hired up to four outside contractors with crews of 10 or more to remove utility-owned lead service lines this year.
“The ultimate goal for all water systems facing this issue ought to be the complete removal of all lead from their systems and innovative ways to help customers remove lead from their portion of the service lines,” said Vial. “But water utilities cannot do this alone. They will need the assistance of regulators, elected officials and residents. This needs to be a collaborative effort. It is time that we tackle this issue head on as a nation so that no system, no residents, face this issue again.”
Suez states that the surcharge to be billed to all customers will include program and administration costs, surveys and other required costs, “and the company’s costs incurred above the $1,000 customer payment as part of the total.”
In its petition to BPU, Suez requests that BPU approve at its April 18 meeting deferred accounting for all costs of the program incurred to date and approve a surcharge for the pilot program to remove homeowners’ lead lines.
$1K ‘relatively small’
“The impact on a customer bill will be relatively small ($1,000 vs. a $3,000 to $8,000 cost) while the benefits of eliminating lead service lines will be great,” the proposal notes.
In March, Suez said it was working with Bergen County to replace lead service lines in coordination with road construction projects, and local road projects in Little Ferry and Rutherford.
From the main water line, which lies near the center of most roads, Suez owns the line from the main to the curb. Often, this includes a gooseneck, or short pipe between the main and service line, also owned by Suez. From the curb to the home, the customer owns the line and is responsible for maintenance.
Meanwhile, a widely cited Bankrate.com survey from January said that most Americans cannot afford a $1,000 unexpected expenditure, concluding that 40 percent of Americans could cover such a cost from savings.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has set the maximum contaminant level goal for lead in drinking water at zero because lead is a toxic metal that can harm people—affecting cognitive abilities—at even low exposure levels. Exposure to lead is especially damaging to children, and is known to affect behavior and intelligence in babies.
Lead is persistent and accumulates in the body over time. Although children are at increased risk of effects of lead poisoning, exposure via drinking contaminated water can also sicken adults, EPA says online. Suez provides drinking water to approximately 200,000 homes and businesses in 57 municipalities in Bergen and Hudson counties.
In Newark, a $75 million program was recently begun to replace nearly 15,000 lead water pipes that city officials suspect are a large part of the high lead level readings detected citywide.
Steps are also being taken to fix the corrosion control treatment at the city’s Pequannock plant, which, similar to Suez, may be contributing to the system’s lead problem. In Newark, 35,000 water filters were distributed to residents with lead lines.
A Newark Water spokeswoman said a new corrosion control program may take up to eight months to stabilize or reduce overall numbers of lead levels systemwide.
Approximately 1.4 million people statewide get drinking water from systems showing high lead levels, including almost 800,000 from Suez in Bergen and Hudson counties, reports say.
‘This is the next great infrastructure crisis’
Addressing 22 local mayors at an April 9 breakfast forum a state League of Municipalities official said replacing lead pipes statewide “is the next great infrastructure crisis we’re facing.”
Deputy Executive Director Michael Cerra said the issue of replacing lead pipes needs to be addressed with funding from state and federal sources.
“There’s going to be no one way to do this [replacements]. “The first part is we have to know exactly where these lead pipes are,” Cerra said, supporting a statewide inventory of lead pipes in every state water system.
Suez proposes lead fixes
“We want to do this the right way. We need elected officials to work with regulators and utilities to create low-cost programs so that residents can change out their portions of lead service line. We need regulation governing lead to extend to water infrastructure so that upon the sale of the home, there is disclosure if there is lead plumbing or a lead line,” suggested Vial, the Suez spokeswoman.
“We need residents to further educate themselves on this issue so they understand that it is not only service lines that could be causing this issue; there are homes that have fixtures, plumbing or solder that contain lead,” Vial said.