BELLEVILLE, NJ – The past few weeks have been frustrating for Belleville Mayor Michael Melham and residents of his entire community.
While Belleville has been dealing with water challenges since late 2018, recent conference calls, press conferences, meetings and news reports seem to only highlight the City of Newark and concerns from Newark residents.
“I’ve been telling everyone that will listen: Belleville residents drink the same exact water, which travels through a virtually identical infrastructure,” Melham said. “In the future, if you are going to mandate filters, bottled water and testing, Belleville must be included.”
Early, Melham expressed exasperation that surrounding mayors were not included on several early conference calls about the water challenges, even though the Township of Belleville is a customer of Newark and directly purchases its water.
Speaking on behalf of the people of Belleville, Melham has made his voice heard via calls, texts and emails to federal and state lawmakers.
“While communication has certainly improved, the calls and meetings I am invited to always seem to focus on the City of Newark and its residents,” Melham said. “What about Belleville?”
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), a former Newark mayor, authored a letter urging “immediate assistance,” for “Newark officials to distribute bottled water to protect residents.” Melham was quick to contact the senator’s office to inform him that Belleville residents drink the same water.
Last week there was a report that members of the state’s Congressional delegation asked the federal government to help with lead testing in Newark. That same day, Melham welcomed Rep. Albio Sires (D-8thDist.) to Town Hall, where the Belleville mayor reiterated – yet again – that his constituents drink the same water as the people in Newark.
After a small sample test showed that the voluntarily-issued filters that Newark was handing out may not be working correctly, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a letter stating the agency is “unable at this time to assure Newark residents that their health is fully protected when drinking tap water filtered through these devices.” The EPA placed the onus on Newark to provide bottled water to Newark residents.
The most recent update posted on the “EPA in New Jersey – Newark Drinking Water” webpage states: “EPA continues to work with the City and NJDEP, as all parties work to ensure that the people of Newark are protected from lead in their drinking water.”
Melham is targeting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler and Catherine McCabe, Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP), to reiterate the fact that Belleville residents drink the same water and demand the same attention as those living in Newark.
Last Friday, Melham was invited to a productive meeting organized by Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo. The county, through the Essex County Improvement Authority, is willing to loan municipalities the money to replace all lead service lines within their borders.
For a Township like Belleville, that cost can be upwards of $24 million.
“Let’s be clear: lead line replacement is the only permanent solution,” Melham said. “It’s a costly endeavor and it’s something that will be considered as a long-term solution. This certainly isn’t the county’s problem, but as the County Executive says, we are all one big family. The county is quickly coming forward with a solution and a funding mechanism.”
“Municipalities can get a much better bond rate, thanks to the County’s AAA bond rating,” the mayor said. “I thank the county executive for offering this long-term option.”
But, Melham said, what about in the days and weeks ahead?
“That is why I must continue to raise awareness at all levels of government that Belleville residents drink the same water,” he said. “While Newark is not under any federal mandates to provide filters and bottled water, if and when that happens, Belleville residents must be included. Federal officials need to include Belleville whenever they discuss Newark drinking water.”
“There is no other immediate solution.”