NEWARK, NJ - When Christopher Nobles landed this latest construction job, he knew it was more than just a paycheck.
The Local 427 member is among more than two dozen Newark residents working on the replacement of the city’s 18,000 lead sewer lines, having completed a specialized apprenticeship the city is providing to encourage union construction workers to develop specialized skills required for the work.
“You’re not just doing it for yourself, you’re doing it to help other people,” Nobles said as he stood holding a shovel on Eastern Parkway on Wednesday. “It’s the betterment of your community. It’s not just getting money.”
Nobles, along with 13 other Newark residents, completed a two-week apprenticeship in early October aimed at encouraging minorities, women and city residents to hone their construction expertise in a way that allows them to complete the lead service line replacement work. Nobles said he graduated from the apprenticeship on Friday, October 18. His first day on the job was the following Monday.
At the helm of that program is David Muhammad.
Muhammad is the manager of the city's Office of Affirmative Action. That role has Muhammad enforcing a Newark ordinance that requires certain businesses and developers seeking tax abatements and other benefits from the city to use local residents for work on construction projects. That also encompasses public works projects, such as the lead service line replacement program.
Newark secured a $120 million loan from Essex County in August to expedite the timing of the already existing lead service line replacement program from 10 years to up to three years amid the city’s elevated lead water crisis. Muhammad said he knew it would be a “great demand” on the unions to find minorities and locals to staff the city job on short notice.
So, Muhammad said, the city developed the first iteration of the apprenticeship in October to encourage existing union members to develop the skills needed to do the specific work of digging up and replacing the pipes that serve thousands of impacted residential homes.
Nobles, who works 12-hour shifts, five days a week, said residents often come out of their homes to offer him water or to check on how he’s doing when he’s standing in one of the three-by-three trenches he has to dig to get to the pipes on the street. On Wednesday, Nobles was working in the city’s West Ward, which has seen the greatest impact of elevated lead water levels in the city.
“They definitely appreciate the work that we’re doing,” Nobles said.
That was a sentiment shared by Muhammad, who said interacting with pleased residents on the street was starkly different than the rowdy meetings that have dominated the City Council chambers since the crisis erupted over the summer, where residents have repeatedly bashed city officials over distrust about how the crisis was handled.
The fact that some workers are locals also helps ease residents concerns when they see someone they might recognize.
“[They’re] more familiar with some people that they see so it’s like, ‘oh okay I know that guy who’s digging the hole now,” Muhammad said.
Muhammad said the city currently has two union contracts for the work, one for heavy construction workers and another for operating engineers, which will work on the project until its completion. Phases of the program are slated to be completed by 2021, according to city water officials.
More than 100 workers are on the project citywide, with about one-quarter of them being Newark residents, Muhammad said. Of the 14 people who completed the October construction apprenticeship, all but one secured a job on the project, Muhammad said. He added that the city is working on developing future classes that could also incorporate operating engineers.
Workers are tasked with replacing 25 to 50 lead lines per day. As of Monday, the city has replaced 2,000 lead lines citywide with a six to eight-man crew working per city block on a given day.
While Muhammad said he was not so much in the direct line of fire of criticism from residents angry at the city’s response to the lead water crisis, including those who said Mayor Ras Baraka was not doing enough about it sooner. He expected not everyone to be happy, calling it “par for the course.”
Still, Muhammad, who has served in his role for five years, said being part of the massive lead line replacement project, that the city maintains comes at no cost to residents, could overshadow the hiccups the city was met with when the crisis first erupted.
“I know that it’s going to be a legacy for the city,” Muhammad said. “Though I’m not in a hole... as far as replacing a lead pipe, I at least want to be able to tell my grandchildren ‘I was there.’”