NEWARK, NJ -  An eight-year program that will replace about 15,000 lead service lines for Newark homeowners started today with a bit of fanfare. 

MORE: See if your home is eligible for the program

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and State Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Catherine McCabe stood with subcontractors in front of a North Ward home to break ground on the first phase of the program, which will target 1,500 homes with lead service lines.

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“This is a great day, bittersweet for the City of Newark,” Baraka said. “Bitter in a sense that we still have to deal with lead service lines in our city. We have been working hard to get to this point.”

The city has received four violations from the state for elevated lead levels since 2017. In October 2018, a city-commissioned study pointed to a cause: the chemical the city was treating its water with had become ineffective at preventing lead from leaching off in residents’ pipes. The process is known as corrosion control.

The lead plumbing is owned by the homeowners, not the city. But thanks to the city’s $75 million bond program that was made possible through state legislation, homeowner’s out-of-pocket expenses for the work will be reduced to about $1,000. Homeowners can pay that cost in installments, the city has said.

Kristin Burks-Mullings’ North Ward home was the scene of today’s groundbreaking, although the mayor said properties throughout other wards were also selected for the first phase of the program.

Burks-Mullings moved to Newark in 2014 even after her real estate agent said the 100-year-old home she was interested in buying most likely had a lead service line. Testing from the city in 2017 confirmed what the realtor suspected, Burks-Mullings said.

“We actually got insurance for the plumbing. So we were told  -- or maybe we misunderstood -- that it will cover the lead service line,” said Burks-Mullings. “But then they told us it didn't cover the lead service line. So then when we asked a couple of plumbers how much it would cost they said $7,000 to $8,000."

Burks said she and her family used bottled water to drink and cook with as a precaution throughout the years.

McCabe, the state DEP commissioner, said the state Water Bank provided $12 million in financing for the first phase of the project and Newark will be eligible for up to $9 million in principal forgiveness.

Assemblywomen Cleopatra Tucker and Eliana Pintor Marin sponsored legislation signed into law by Gov. Phil Murphy last year that allows municipalities and counties to issue 30-year bonds to fund the replacement of lead-contaminated house connections to publicly-owned water systems.

North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos Jr. said today's event marked an important step in addressing some of the infrastructure issues impacting the city's water supply and praised the state lawmakers for securing funding for the project.

"Thanks to the advocacy of our local officials and legislation sponsored by Pintor Marin and Tucker and support from Governor Murphy, there is a considerable subsidy for replacement of lead service lines for affected homeowners," Ramos said.  

Water infrastructure continues to be a problem not just in Newark, but across the whole nation, McCabe added. It would cost an estimated $8 billion in New Jersey alone to replace drinking water infrastructure, she said.

"I look forward to continuing to work from the state level with the mayor and the city,” McCabe told reporters. “Both to provide the continued oversight in our role as the state regulator to ensure that Newark continues to meet its requirements under federal and state law -- as it is doing -- and to help them with the financing as much as the state can possibly do.”

The city is currently working to implement an effective corrosion control inhibitor in one of its treatment plants. City officials in October said it would take about eight months for it to be fully implemented.

In October, the city also began to distribute lead filters to residents after receiving preliminary results of a study that showed the corrosion control inhibitor had become ineffective.

BOTTLED WATER NOT ‘ECONOMICAL’

McCabe and Baraka are named as defendants in a federal lawsuit filed last year by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The lawsuit alleges city and state officials violated federal regulations that caused lead levels to rise in Newark.

The city’s filter program has been called “haphazard” by the NRDC, and the environmental group has now asked a judge to make the city distribute bottled water.

Baraka said at a today’s press conference that the city didn’t hire any additional staff to help with the filter distribution program. He said distributing filters rather than bottled water is more “economical."

“We've given out replacement cartridges as well," Baraka said when asked about it today. "We think that’s a lot more economical, a lot more feasible and smarter than giving out water bottles. I think that giving out water bottles is something is not sustainable, but giving filters out is something the city can and has sustained.”

One of the NRDC’s latest court filings included depositions from residents who said they had a hard time accessing filters and replacement cartridges. 

In a release, the city today said the filters it distributed last up to 100 gallons or about three months. The release said those filters may now be expiring and reminded residents to pick up replacement cartridges at locations around the city.

Baraka briefly veered off his prepared statements for his state of the city address yesterday to make a jab at the NRDC, although he didn’t name the group specifically.

“Instead of trying to get the city to spend our money on their lawyers, they should be working with us, the state, the federal government and finding corporate businesses to begin to give money to help us actually replace the lead service lines in the city of Newark, the State of New Jersey and the United States of America,” Baraka said to  applause in the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.

But before his state of the city address last night, about a dozen protesters chanted “safe water for Newark” outside of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.

The protesters were led by a grassroots group known as the Newark Water Coalition, which formed in December to help residents learn more about the lead issue. Anthony Diaz, a facilitator for the group, questioned why it would take so long replace lead lines for homeowners.

“When development comes it’s like all hands on deck,” Diaz said. “...But when a serious health problem comes along it’s not all hands on deck.”

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