NEWARK, NJ - A public meeting at Newark City Hall gave residents the opportunity to sign up as volunteers to inform others about how to replace affected lead service lines as part of a planned infrastructure program.
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka called on city residents Wednesday night to drum up interest in participation in the planned replacement of lead-tainted service lines leading to individual properties.
"We're going to give them support and some water, too, but the number one function is to get them to sign on the dotted line," said Baraka in a meeting held just over a week after the city secured a $120 million loan from Essex County to speed up Newark's lead service line replacement program as the city contends with the lead contamination water crisis. "We need to be very vigilant and committed to this process. We need you to get involved in this."
Baraka went through the details of the program, in which Essex County will lend the city $120 million via a 30-year bond to be used exclusively for the lead service line replacement program, started by the city in March. The initial estimated time to replace all of Newark's 18,000 antiquated lead lines was approximately eight to 10 years. At a press conference last week, attended by Baraka and Gov. Phil Murphy, Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. stated he anticipated the lead line program will be done in 24 to 30 months.
Because the pipes are on private property, homeowners originally would have had to pay about $1,000 out of pocket for the replacement. Under the Essex County bond plan, homeowners will no longer have to pay this fee.
On Thursday, the city council advanced legislation that will allow city workers to go on people's property without their permission to execute the replacement program. The council will have a final vote next week.
In an interview, Baraka noted the importance of community participation in the program, including the need to get the signatures needed for permission to proceed with the program immediately.
"We can't do this on our own. The water department is testing filters, testing pipes, testing water. They don't have the capacity to go out and get people's signatures," Baraka said. "We can't start until we do that."
The city is also anticipating participation from major corporations based in the city, as well as Rutgers-Newark and nonprofit organizations such as the Ironbound Community Corporation.
The Baraka administration turned away TV cameras and reporters last week from the first community meeting held about the lead service line replacement program at City Hall it had blasted out in a press release the day before. The administration said the day after the meeting it would reverse future decisions to block the press from covering meetings that involve residents impacted by Newark’s lead water crisis.
When interviewed, Newark residents seemed willing and able to get the word out about the program.
"You have to do some footwork and talk to your neighbors," said Central Ward resident Bernice Robinson, who was one of approximately 50 people present at the meeting. "We have to go block by block to get this thing rectified."
"We have to get more people out there who are knowledgeable about the process," said South Ward resident Michael Hobbs. "People are very confused right now. Sending folks out door to door is the most important thing to do."
"There are a lot of people affected, including children," said North Ward resident Ricardo Diaz. "People need to know what to do to fix this."
South Ward resident Yvette Jordan has been publicly critical of the city and state's efforts to solve Newark's lead water contamination crisis. She acknowledged the potential positive benefits of the volunteer effort but believes city residents should keep an eye on the ultimate results.
"I can help on my block and with phone-banking," said Jordan, a social studies teacher at Newark's Central High School who is part of a lawsuit filed last year by environmental and education groups against the city and state officials, charging that their violations of federal law have resulted in dangerous lead levels in Newark’s drinking water. "The enforcement and implementation of how the program is rolled out is something a lot of folks are looking at. Hopefully, a lot of volunteers come out. But this has got to be enforced, and enforced well. Building contractors are going to get involved really quickly. I hope they are vetted well."