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Remarks: Announcing his "Lead-Free Schools Act"
We are here today to discuss steps we can take to address the lead water in many of our schools and how we can deploy the tax dollars we already send to Washington to address this problem.
Like most parents, when I first read the news out of Flint, Michigan back in 2014, I was heartbroken. Images of brown water pouring out of faucets with public officials turning a blind eye. I was not only devastated by the impact that the lead found in Flint’s water would have on countless children – from stunted intellectual growth and seizures to the potential development of cancer – but I simply couldn’t understand how this could happen in our country. I think it’s fair to say that all of us began to pay very close attention to the drinking water in our homes and in our schools.
Now, fortunately, the water challenges facing us here in New Jersey are not the same as those in the Flint crisis. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t real problems we have to deal with – and address without delay. We have plenty of schools in our great state, and here in my District, whose water fountains, sinks and pipes are generations old, and were made with lead.
Hackensack High School, for instance, just celebrated its hundred year anniversary last year. Ridgewood High School, founded in 1892, opened the main building it uses today in 1919, nearly a hundred years ago. When you have infrastructure that predates the phase out of lead pipes in the 1920s or lead solder in the 1980s, there could be lead in the drinking water, whether that’s in the water fountains, in the halls, or the sinks in the lunch rooms. Now, most of our towns and the local water companies, as required by state and federal environmental authorities, strictly monitor the lead in our drinking water and have taken the appropriate steps. Among other treatments, they have ways to coat old pipes to prevent lead from leaching into the water. But, even if that works, it doesn’t stop lead once the water supply enters the school house itself and travels through those ancient pipes. Therein lies the problem – and what often delivers those headlines that can scare all of us. Just this month, in fact, in the Record, we read one headline: “High Lead Levels Close Saddle River School Water Fountains.” Last March, the Star-Ledger found elevated lead levels in Newark Schools’ drinking water. Last April, another story in the Record read, “Lead found in water at both Wanaque schools.” And then in May, there was this headline: “Elevated lead found in water in six of seven Bergenfield public schools.” And, in another article, from a few towns over, we read, “Fears of lead results in Englewood shutting down water fountains in school district buildings.” Finally, in December, this one also caught my eye: “Lead found in some small North Jersey water systems.”
By August, New Jersey Future reported that at least 137 New Jersey public schools had tested positive for lead. And, last week, the Atlantic City Press found that thirteen of their twenty-six local districts that tested their water discovered elevated levels of lead, and fifty percent of their schools had unacceptable levels of lead. Unfortunately, we don’t have these statistics yet for Bergen County, but I don’t like the trend line. Since 2012, nearly 2,000 water systems across the U.S. have found elevated lead levels in tap water samples, a significant public health concern.
According to an Asbury Park Press investigation last year, four out of five public water systems in New Jersey – from 2013 through 2015 – reported some levels of lead in the drinking water delivered to homes, businesses, and schools. In fact, since 2000, according to Environment New Jersey Research & Policy Center, more than 225,000 children in our state were reported to have elevated levels of lead in their blood.
That’s not acceptable – and here’s why.
The science is clear. When children are exposed to lead, their development could be delayed, they face learning disabilities, and appetite and weight loss. In the worst cases, children could develop permanent damage to their kidneys and nervous systems. They could experience seizures, hearing loss, and vomiting. And the greatest risk is to brain development, with subtle and irreversible damage.
It's no wonder so many moms and dads are walking on egg shells about what’s going on about lead water in schools and communities. I know that it’s something that my wife and I talk about too often and I hear a lot about this issue from other parents. I don’t blame them for being concerned.
Parents are worried. They want information. They don’t know if the water in their children’s school is lead free. They don’t know what’s in the water fountains and sinks. And, more than anything, they want to know what we can – and should be – doing about it. Last week, Ridgewood Water put out an alert to several surrounding towns after they found traces of E Coli in raw, untreated water. It turned out to be nothing, but the news caused parents and school districts to panic. Their fears aren’t unjustified.
Last week’s news built on the recent headlines about lead in the water, the notices they’ve received at home about lead, and, of course, the larger voter infrastructure problems facing our country. One mom called me and said, “I don’t get it. How do we pay all of this money in taxes and in our water bills and then we get notices at home about lead in the water and alerts about E Coli— and the need to run and boil our water as if we are living in an undeveloped nation.” I couldn’t really argue with her. I must say that I was a big shocked when we got an email at home from our superintendent that my kid’s school was handing out bottled water to every student on Thursday.
Meanwhile, two of the local Starbucks simply locked up their doors and closed for the day. Really? In 2017? This problem is threatening our children, frightening our parents, and hurting local businesses. We must do better.
Now, let me be clear, most of our schools, like the one here in Northvale have taken the necessary steps to upgrade their infrastructure, deal with this challenge, and put minds at ease. We heard from Mayor Piehler about how he performed the Wizard of Oz here at Northvale, home of the Eagles, so many years ago. As he pointed out, this school was built in 1969. While it is an old school, the administration here took aggressive steps to make sure its students were protected from contaminated water. They knew that water fountain built before 1988 could dispense water tainted with lead because of their valves and pipes. So, they replaced the old drinking fountains. They tested every water source in the school for lead. Then, they installed filters on top of the new fountains that still needed them. Finally, they tested the water again and it passed with flying colors. Every water source in this school is lead free – and I commend the town and parents for doing it by the book.
But here’s the problem. Not every school has been able to take the steps Northvale has.
I don’t want any parent, here in Bergen County, in the Fifth District, our state, or across the country, for that matter, to have to worry if the water their child drinks is choc full of lead. As parents, we have a right to know what’s in our kids water. We have a right to know that our children will be safe at their schools. We simply can’t afford to gamble with their health and futures.
We deserve information and then we need the resources to do something about it. Today, I’m proud to announce “The Lead-Free Schools Act” – a bill to give peace of mind to parents worried about the lead water in our schools – for testing, information, and remediation. It will also get some of those federal tax dollars that we’re already sending to Washington back to New Jersey to help us pay for this effort.
The Lead-Free Schools Act will do three key things:
First, it will test our schools for lead in the drinking water.
My bill increases the resources available to our schools to help test drinking water. Currently, it costs about $50 dollars per test to check each of a school’s dozens of water fountains and sinks. That’s thousands of dollars per school that many simply can’t afford under these tight budgets. This doesn’t cover all of the costs, but it’s a start and will hopefully encourage our school districts to act.
In all, this bill will help test the water at the roughly 90,000 schools across the country that still experience inconsistent testing and have unknown lead levels, including many here in Bergen, Passaic, Sussex, and Warren counties.
It’s a key first step in giving parents the information they need to know what’s going on. New Jersey has taken some steps toward achieving this goal, and I applaud our Governor and legislature for their action. But, as a Record editorial recently pointed out, it simply isn’t enough – or fast enough, given those headlines I read earlier. And, outside of New Jersey, there are simply too many other states that have done next to nothing to protect our children from lead in their water.
Second, it’s one thing to collect information about lead contamination, but it’s another to make sure parents actually know what’s happening in their particular school.
My legislation will require that school districts, via the state, report annually on a user-friendly website, the status and outcome of lead water testing in their individual schools. The website will let parents know that the deal is. Lead or no lead. Safe or unsafe. Every time there is a lead story, every time there is an ambiguous article about another school having problems, our phones ring. The town blogs clog up. And parents want to know the deal. I know I want to know. This shouldn’t be complicated, but we all know that, too often, government bureaucracies bury information in inaccessible reports that collect dust on some shelf — and we sit at home worrying. One thing I learned when I worked in the technology sector, is that it’s easy and inexpensive to put up a clear and simple website and that we can cut right to bureaucracy. We should do the same here and my bill does that. There’s no excuse. We deserve to know the facts. And, of course, once we know the results, parents will either be comforted or they will be empowered to take action and secure clean water for their kids.
Third, my bill creates a targeted pilot program – using existing resources – to improve drinking water infrastructure in schools with lead in their water.
I’m hoping that these resources will help more schools jump-start their programs to replace fountains, faucets, drinking fountain nozzles, and fountain infrastructure – and prevent lead from seeping into a school’s water supply. With water fountains costing up to $1,500 before installation expenses, we know some schools simply can’t afford to replace them and these small, but targeted resources will give tens of thousands of schools, including many in my District, a head start. And, frankly, here in the Fifth District, where we pay some of the highest taxes in the country, yet have historically gotten the fewest dollars back, it’s time we got a better return on investment.
Instead of our federal tax dollars pouring into states like West Virginia, I prefer to get them back here to help address problems like this one. And these are dollars that are already set aside. Why not put them toward solving this problem? Going forward, I’m also working with Democrats and Republicans on a broader infrastructure bill to go along tax reform that will help lower our taxes and address larger infrastructure issues in our country, including towns riddled with old lead pipes. We simply can’t afford to be short-sighted when it comes to securing the health of our children.
Finally, like so many local issues, this just isn’t bipartisan. It’s not a Democratic or Republican issue. It’s a Fifth District issue. It’s an American issue. It’s a mom and dad issue. Many of my Republican friends in Congress care about it, too, like my fellow freshman, Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick from Pennsylvania, who has been working with me on solutions to our lead drinking water problem.
We live in the greatest country in the world. This is a problem we can solve working together and help all of our parents know that their kids are safe.
Thank you, God bless you, and now let’s get this done.