NEWARK, NJ — Balloons bearing congratulations flapped in the wind on Aldine Street on Tuesday afternoon, trimmings marking the city’s promotion of its 10,000th lead service line replacement since the project commenced in fall 2019.
Newark has dealt with elevated lead levels in its water since 2015, a result of aging and long-neglected infrastructure. The ill-famed crisis came to a head nearly a year ago after the Environmental Protection Agency informed the city that filters distributed to residents as a solution in 2018 weren’t effective.
In the immediate aftermath, the city distributed tens of thousands of cases of water bottles to its residents, drawing comparisons to Flint, Michigan in national headlines.
They later handed out new filters, which the city, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the EPA found to be 97% effective. Simultaneously, Newark City Council approved legislation to replace all 18,000 of Newark’s lead service lines with copper ones using a $120 million loan from Essex County.
Mayor Ras Baraka said on Tuesday that the 36-month project was ahead of schedule and confirmed residents would receive testing kits from a company called 120 Water Audit and follow-up from the city six months after installation. A lead line's replacement does not mean home’s water is automatically safe to drink — it must be tested following a certain period of time.
“We’ll probably be the fastest of this many lead service lines to ever be replaced in the country, period,” Baraka claimed. “Obviously, there are other ways that lead can get in your water outside the lead service line, but that is the majority of the way lead gets into your water, so removing that kind of diminishes the levels of lead that gets in your water above the amount that is lawful.”
Although there is no “safe” amount of lead, the EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule states that water cannot have higher than 15 parts per billion (ppb). Kareem Adeem, director of Newark Water and Sewer Utilities, would not say what Newark’s ppb exact levels were but said they continue to decline.
A city spokesman later told TAPinto Newark that the current levels are 15 ppb with preliminary results from testing in March showing 9 ppb, within the EPA’s range. According to the city, the Weequahic section of the project is now 90% finished.
“We constantly communicate with people in our city all the time. This narrative that people don’t trust the city, I don’t think that’s true,” Baraka said. “I think the more we educate people and talk to people about what’s actually going on, they’ll begin to understand what they need to do and have to do to protect themselves and their families.”
But in the eyes of some community members, Tuesday’s celebration was mere self-congratulations. The city is still fighting a lawsuit filed in 2018 by the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, and the Newark Education Workers Caucus alleging violations of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.
Founders of the Newark Water Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group formed around the water issue, said after mismanagement and a lack of accountability from the Baraka administration, there is little praise due for work that should have been done years ago.
“I think it’s absolutely absurd that they would hold a press conference for these lead service lines,” said Anthony Diaz, NWC co-founder. “They can have the banners and balloons if they want, but at the end of the day, that’s just not real work. We still get 30 requests for water almost every day.”
Diaz’s fellow co-founder, Sabre Bee, echoed his sentiments, pointing to the variances in testimonies they receive from residents regarding the process, routine and communication of the various contractors delivering services to Newark's neighborhoods. She said officials' focus on how quickly the project is being completed detracts from the larger issue and isn’t compensating for past mistakes.
“We deserve and demand a job well done, not a job done quickly. We have to be sure that we are not treating water only as infrastructure because while it’s an issue, the bigger issue is the human health impact,” Bee said. “We’re not talking about pipes, we’re talking about people being poisoned, about the mental health and illness that occurs because people let their kids brush their teeth.”