(Editor's note: This article's headline and story have been updated to reflect a clarification from the city as to the reasons behind why the additional lines were inspected.)
NEWARK, NJ - City officials told the City Council on Tuesday it was inspecting additional properties for lead service lines at the request of homeowners as it continues its push to have all lead service lines across Newark replaced.
Administration officials maintained the city was replacing all lead service lines whether an area is impacted by elevated lead levels or not as a precautionary and permanent solution to the lead water problem.
Officials from Mayor Ras Baraka’s administration said the city was inspecting additional properties at the request of homeowners who may not be sure if their homes are serviced by lead service lines.
The city has identified a total of 18,720 lead service lines across Newark.
Officials said the additional inspection of properties for lead service lines did not correlate to any increased areas of contamination.
The goal of Mayor Baraka’s administration, they said, was to replace every lead line in the city no matter what.
“It wasn’t about if you were affected or not,” Water and Sewer Utilities Director Kareem Adeem said.
But the presentation Tuesday infuriated East Ward Councilman Augusto Amador, whose heated exchange with Adeem shut down the public portion of the meeting.
Amador again reiterated the notion that the city had treated his ward differently when dealing with how to combat the elevated levels of lead mostly found in the city’s south and west wards.
The councilman cited tests by a private company that showed constituents in his ward were impacted by elevated levels of lead and that the city had not done enough to test homes there.
Now, Amador said, it appears to be unclear how much of the East Ward is impacted by contamination, if at all.
“We don’t know what is the percentage of contamination that exists in the East Ward,” Amador told Adeem as he stood at the podium. “There is a problem in the east that should have been recognized from the very beginning and it was not.”
The exchange between the two men, which included several interruptions by both officials, grew so heated that Council President Mildred C. Crump suggested Adeem stop answering questions.
“Director, do yourself a favor, do not respond,” Crump said. “We are getting absolutely nowhere.”
Shortly after, Amador turned toward council members on the dais as Crump was trying to bring order to the meeting and blurted out: “Shut up.”
Crump opted to move the meeting into executive session, which requires the public to leave council chambers so officials may debate issues in private.
Kenyatta Stewart, the city’s corporate counsel, said the reason for the executive session was because Amador’s comments suggesting his area of the city has contamination problems would open the city up to litigation by residents who could cite the comments of a public official whether they were accurate or not.
“I can’t let him sit there and say that,” Stewart said after the public portion of the meeting.
Adeem, along with lead service line replacement project manager, Melvin Waldrop, presented a lead service line replacement program split into 10 phases with work stretching into January 2021.
City officials are aiming to use a $120 million loan from Essex County to pay for the replacement of all the city’s lead service lines in 24 to 30 months.
Amador said he took issue with the way the city handled what he saw was a lack of testing in the East Ward and conflicting information. When asked after the meeting if he still believed the administration when it said the East Ward was not impacted by elevated levels like the rest of the city, he said no.
“We have examples of where the contamination exists and they should have been dealt with from the very beginning, and they were not,” Amador said.
Amador said all the homes identified as being serviced by lead lines, which includes his own home, should be tested by the city as a precautionary measure because the contamination issue stems from the lead lines, not the water source.
“The residents of the East Ward need to understand that and they’re not,” Amador said. “There seems to be a lot of confusion about the whole thing.”