NEWARK, NJ — The Newark lead service line replacement program is now in its final stage, the city announced Monday, just two months after it declared its lead levels below the federal safety standard of 15.4 parts per billion (ppb).
Mayor Ras Baraka, whose line at his South Ward home has already been replaced, went through the waiting and testing period following installation. He said he and his family drink from the tap with confidence.
“My wife was beating me over the head until it happened, I have a small child in my house,” he joked. “We did ours early before this program came out, ours came back 2 or 3 ppb, and so we stopped using the filter ourselves.”
In early July, officials reported that the use phosphoric acid orthophosphate in its Pequannock water system — where the previous corrosion inhibitor failed in 2017 and caused lead to leach from Newark’s aging service lines into the drinking water — succeeded in bringing lead levels to 14.1 ppb for the January-June 2020 testing period. Samples are collected and tested every six months, according to Newark Water and Sewer Director Kareem Adeem.
After a troubled start to addressing its water crisis in 2017, Newark can now boast an accomplishment that officials said no other city with lead water issues can: In 1.5 years, the municipality has replaced 15,000 lead service lines through its five wards.
With up to 6,000 lines left to go through the city’s five wards, Adeem estimates the program will conclude in spring 2021. The project began in August 2019 after the city secured a $120 million loan from Essex County to expedite the program, which at the time was struggling to push beyond 700 replacement lines, according to Baraka.
The original program, which borrowed $12 million from the state, was anticipated to take 10 years with some residents living without potable water in their homes. Cooperation between Newark and Essex County has also replaced lines in Nutley, Bloomfield and other surrounding municipalities where lead service lines threaten the safety of residents’ taps.
“This is unheard of, what’s been done. It’s not happening anywhere in New Jersey, not in Paterson, Trenton, or even Flint, Michigan,” said Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo. “In less than a year and a half, this is pretty amazing, and at no cost to the taxpayers.”
DiVincenzo said the reason the loan was possible was due to Essex County’s AAA bond rating. Newark is paying off the money it borrowed to replace its lead lines with back rent it’s owed from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
Baraka added that the deal saved the city $9.6 million versus a city bond issuance.
“Our financial team has created a refinancing structure that will generate nearly $15 million in service savings, $14 million of which will be realized in 2020 and 2021,” Baraka said. “This improved cash flow will help to mitigate some of the financial impact of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.”
Leading up to its collaboration with the county, Baraka’s administration was beleaguered by levels as high as 57 ppb, failing to meet federal Lead and Copper rule standards for six consecutive periods between 2017 and 2019. In 2018, a lawsuit from the Newark Education Workers Caucus, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Newark Water Coalition demanded the city distribute bottled water to residents.
The litigants got their wish, at least temporarily — August 2019 brought new headaches when filters given to residents by the city failed, and the United States Environmental Protection Agency ordered the city to hand out bottled water. Officials pushed the use of new filters the following October and ended free water distribution.
The legal dispute is still pending as of August 2020. According to the EPA, there is no safe level of lead, which can pose serious health risks, especially for developing children.
Between COVID-19, a looming budget deficit, nationwide unrest and a presidential election amid a pandemic, there is at least one bright spot these days for officials in the progress of its water issue. In fact, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection sees potential in Newark and Essex County’s work as a state or national model.
“The issue that we are dealing with is not a Newark problem, it is not a New Jersey problem. It’s a national problem, it’s about the age of America’s bones and in some instances, their failing,” said NJDEP Chief of Staff Shawn LaTourrette. “So what are we going to do about that? We’re going to follow Newark’s lead.”
LaTourrette said that he and his staff are working on creating a state-specific version of the Lead and Copper rule to protect residents beyond federal standards. Other municipalities where lead levels exceed safety standards include Bordentown, Trenton, Vernon Township, Fieldsboro, Manchester Township and West Milford.
“I, standing here today, am not aware of any city in the country that has done what Newark has,” he added.
In addition to cooperation between local, county and state governments, Baraka emphasized funding as the key to Newark’s success. Because many water purveyors are private, they may charge residents elsewhere to pay down the immense debt service of replacing water infrastructure.
Baraka said that the only reason Newark was able to accomplish their service line replacement goal for free was due to the money being paid to them by the Port Authority, which is unique to the city.
Going forward, Newarkers who have not gone through the post-installation waiting period and sample testing should continue using filters supplied by the city until they are told it's safe to stop. The efficacy of lead service line replacements is being monitored through testing kits from 120 Water Audit, which partnered with the city.
According to Adeem, the city relies on residents to submit those samples in order to test. He said that about 6,000 test kits have been mailed, but only about half have come back from residents.