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Suez announces ‘sweeping attack’ on lead contamination

Company vows removing 25 percent of lead from its system this year

SUEZ Water announced plans to reduce the amount of lead in their North Jersey water supply.

Suez Water recently vowed to remove 25 percent of lead service lines supplying their drinking water system in Northern New Jersey. This announcement follows a recent report they issued in January, stating that about 15 percent of the homes in its water system that were tested were serviced with drinking water that had “elevated levels” of lead.

According to Debra Vial, a Suez press contact, over a dozen crews will begin uprooting lead service lines throughout Bergen and Hudson County, in what will amount to a year-long, $15 million effort to remove lines which connect water mains in the streets to individual homes. Suez owns a portion of those connecting lines that extend from a central water main, and end roughly at curbside.

Property owners are responsible for any service lines and interior plumbing beyond that border line.

In January, Suez announced that 108 of the 180,000 homes serviced by the company’s Haworth plant were tested in various locations, and elevated lead levels were found in 15 of those homes throughout Hudson and Bergen County.

As more homes were tested, Suez determined that some municipalities had a higher concentration of lead service lines overall than others, which included North Bergen, Union City, and West New York. 

Since then, those affected by lead service lines within the Suez system received notice if the company confirmed that their water supplies tested positive for elevated lead levels. Prior to the commitment to replace lead lines in the streets, Suez had been working to replace the lead lines that the company actually owned.  

The 25 percent reduction isn’t an endpoint for mitigating lead within their system, according to Suez. They are working to reach “the ultimate goal of removing all lead” within their system, Vial said. 

‘All hands on deck’

In a majority of cases, elevated lead levels in drinking water are attributed to older public or residential lead pipes and fixtures located throughout towns which connect to companies like Suez that serve as source providers. For decades prior to the late 1980s, lead was a standard material used for drinking water service lines.

The toxic metal, when consumed, is known to cause a number of adverse neurological, reproductive, and developmental health conditions that can prove fatal. Those most susceptible to lead-related conditions are children and pregnant women.

Suez’s goal is to remove 100 lead lines per week throughout the entire service system, with approximately 2,400 lines in mind for a year-end total.

“This has been an all hands on deck effort to attack this issue,” Suez Vice President Mark McKoy said. “It’s a targeted approach that will maximize the amount of lead removed. We are moving quickly on this serious matter.”

According to Suez, the first few weeks of the project will be targeted in municipalities with the highest number of lead service lines. The towns they mentioned are North Bergen, Union City, West New York, Ridgefield Park, Hackensack, Bogota, Rutherford, and Teaneck.

The company will also replace lines in conjunction with street repair projects throughout Bergen and Hudson County, where street repairs go on throughout the year.

Customers can obtain more information or determine if they are served by a utility-owned lead service line or gooseneck by visiting www.suezwq.com, emailing SUEZ at sueznjcustserv@suez-na.com, or calling the suez customer service center at 800-422-5987. Customers can also request a test of their drinking water at the customer service line.

Too little too late?

According to Food and Water Watch organizer Matt Smith, any plan that falls short of fully stopping public exposure to lead-affected water is inadequate.

“Suez’s lead replacement plan isn’t even a half measure; it’s a quarter measure,” Smith said. “This is a multi-billion dollar corporation generating hundreds of millions in their New Jersey budget, but they don’t have what it takes to remove lead lines? There are kids in this area who don’t have access to safe drinking water in their schools.”

Smith said it took long-term pressure and a sweeping series of local ordinances before Suez addressed the issue, caused by infrastructure 32 years or older.

“While it’s good to see that Suez is finally coming up with some kind of plan, why did it have to go this long when we’ve known for years that this was the cause of lead in drinking water?” Smith said. ‘We saw the amount of pressure that townships in the county had to exert to get the company to finally take initiative.”

The serious health hazards associated with lead consumption were first recognized across government at all levels when the federal government banned the use of lead plumbing in 1986, and the state Department of Environmental Protection did the same in 1987.

Still, lead contamination remains a public health crisis over 30 years later. Smith said that publicly operated water providers have greater standards of accountability than private providers; voters can elect representatives based on a commitment to safer public utilities.

“Studies we conducted showed that municipalities save 57 percent on average through using public water utilities rather than private companies,” Smith said.  

“Why did it take this crisis for Suez to begin this long-deferred plan?” Smith asked. “And do we really want to leave critical decisions about the safety of our drinking water to profit-seeking multi-national corporations?”

Despite the fact that long-term pressure from local governments was needed for Suez to commit to mitigating lead within public lines, they did seem to indicate that removing 25 percent of those lead lines is not an end point in their effort, but merely a timeline for what to expect by the year’s end. The timeline of lead removal for years to come has yet to be projected. 

For updates on this story and more check www.hudsonreporter.com, or follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Mike Montemarano can be reached at mikem@hudsonreporter.com.

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