Assembly hearing on lead abatement dominated by bottle bill

David Giambusso, Politico NJ

TRENTON — 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 Monday 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.

The main attraction at a hearing of the Assembly Committee on Environment and Solid Waste was a bill (A2281) sponsored by Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle that would establish a deposit fee on all bottles. People can redeem the bottles and collect the deposit, but 75 percent of the funds that go unredeemed would go towards lead abatement an testing in schools.

Following a statehouse press conference touting the bill, the debate began in earnest 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.

"I've been visiting high schools talking to the children about the concerns they have about lead in their water," Baraka told the committee. "The overwhelming question that they ask me is, 'Why are we only doing something about this now when we've known about this for a very long time?'"

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.

"A lot of times this can go without a full understanding of the cause," she said. "It affects children more than adults because of the fractional absorption in their bodies ... You can see that among all of the development stages within children."

While business groups, brewers and bottlers agreed with the need to address the lead problem, 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.

"What this law requires is a brand new recycling infrastructure ... The implications of that are significant," said Kevin Dietly, an environmental management consultant testifying on behalf of the American Beverage Association. "Talking about a deposit law in a state that has comprehensive recycling already well entrenched is very much counter to what's going on in the rest of the country." 

Only ten other states have bottle deposits, and many of those were enacted before more modern recycling practices and laws were put in place.

Ryan Krill, one of the founders of the Cape May Brewing Company, said his brewery would be required to take in bottles, which would represent an enormous additional cost for his burgeoning business.

"Most importantly to us, it turns our brewery into a recycling center," he said, adding that the investment in equipment and storage alone would be onerous. "We would have to get another building."

Sara Bluhm of the New Jersey Business Industry Association said the bill would disrupt established practices and revenue streams for municipalities.

"We really have to be looking at what the problem is first, and asset management and that seems to be lacking from this conversation today," she said during testimony. "Perhaps this bill is obsolete today with improvements we've made in recycling."

Republican 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."

The bill cleared committee but legislators promised to make changes after two hours of testimony. 

Two other bills that divert $40 million from the Clean Energy Fund to go to lead abatement were cleared with little debate, though both NJBIA and the Sierra Club — often opponents in environmental legislation — were agreed that the state shouldn't be diverting from money earmarked for utility rate reductions and clean energy financing.

"These bills would take $40 million from the Clean Energy Fund," said the Sierra Club's Toni Granato in testimony. "If you combined that with the money that Gov. Christie has already taken, that would be a total of $155 million."