Assembly Committee Takes Action On Lead, Focus of Hearing Dominated By ‘Smart Container’ Discussion

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Lawmakers, advocates and environmentalists are all agreed that something has to be done about lead in New Jersey.  But how that something will be paid for was the cause of much debate April 4 as lawmakers tackled three bills designed to test for and abate what many see as a burgeoning lead crisis in the state, specifically for school children in older cities and towns.

Smart Container Bill

The primary focus of Monday’s Assembly Committee on Environment and Solid Waste hearing was A-2281 (Vainieri Huttle/Spencer) – legislation  that would establish a deposit fee on all bottles.  Under the bill, individuals would be permitted to redeem the bottles and collect the deposit.  Those funds unredeemed would majoratively (75 percent) go to lead abatement and testing in schools.  Education stakeholders, including NJSBA, NJASA, NJEA and NJPSA support the measure as a revenue source for addressing lead remediation issues in particular.   Some municipal leaders and environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, were also in support.  In comparison, opposition was vocal among alcohol beverage distributors as well as business and industry groups.  The bill cleared committee but legislators promised to make changes after two hours of testimony.

Debate began in earnest during the committee hearing with environmental advocates and some municipal leaders facing off against the bottle and beverage industry and other municipal leaders opposed to the bill.  Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, who spoke at the press conference in favor of the bill, pressed the urgency in his city and elsewhere to address lead testing and abatement. More than half of Newark schools, which are controlled by the state, were found to have dangerously elevated levels of lead.

Dr. Jennifer Mouriz, a resident physician at the Jersey City Medical Center, told the committee that lead was the cause of numerous developmental, behavioral and cognitive problems with children.

In comparison, business groups, brewers and bottlers agreed with the need to address the lead problem, but they said a bottle deposit was an archaic means of generating revenue that could seriously harm bottlers and retailers, disrupt the state’s recycling programs and, in the end, would not raise that much money for lead abatement.   Only ten other states have bottle deposits, and many of those were enacted before more modern recycling practices and laws were put in place.

Assemblyman Scott Rumana warned that people would be bringing bottles from out of state to capitalize on New Jersey’s generous fee. New York only exacts a 5-cent deposit fee.  “You remember the episode of Seinfeld where Kramer and Newman — they tried to bring the bottles from New York to Michigan in a mail truck,” he said. “This is not a smart way to go from the consumer standpoint. ”

Lead Testing

Also approved was Assembly bill A-3539 (Muoio/Spencer), which would require that all public and non-public schools in the state conduct periodic, uniform testing for lead in the drinking water supply, utilizing the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guidelines, which are significantly stricter than the state’s.  Under the bill, immediate testing would be required upon the bill’s enactment.  Additional testing would then occur at least once every five years. If elevated levels of lead are found during any test, the school must immediately stop using the water supply, notify parents, teachers and school administrators, contact the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and begin remediation measures.  The notification would include a summary of the test results, a description of the remediation actions being taken, contact information for the school in question and, if necessary, information on how to access blood level testing.  All schools would be required to keep two copies of the tests: one on file with the DEP and one in their administrative offices.  NJPSA, NJSBA, NJEA, and NJASA support the measure.

Clean Energy Diversion

In addition, A-3583 (Spencer / Muoio / Tucker), which would divert $40 million from the Clean Energy Fund to go to lead abatement, was also approved over opposition from both NJBIA and Sierra Club who argued that the State shouldn’t be diverting from money earmarked for utility rate reductions and clean energy financing.  NJPSA is monitoring this legislation.