NEWARK, NJ - City officials have identified additional lead service lines that require replacement across all of Newark that, in at least one ward, will double the amount of work needed to clean and prevent contamination of the city’s drinking water.
The revelation drew the ire of East Ward Councilman Augusto Amador when a chart showed more than 1,500 additional lead service lines in the area he represents were on a replacement schedule.
It is part of the city that administration officials have exasperatedly said was not contaminated with elevated levels of lead because it is served by the Wanaque water system.
Administration officials, who presented the findings to the City Council on Tuesday, maintained the city was replacing all lead service lines whether an area is impacted by elevated lead levels or not as a precautionary and permanent solution to the problem.
They said the discovery of additional lines, which crews identified as the city ramped up its lead service line replacement program, did not correlate to more areas being contaminated. The goal of Mayor Ras Baraka’s administration, they said, was to replace every lead line in the city no matter what.
“It wasn’t about if you were affected or not,” Water and Sewer Utilities Director Kareem Adeem said.
But that was not enough for Amador, whose heated exchange with Adeem shut down the public portion of the meeting.
The councilman cited tests by a private company that showed constituents in his ward were impacted by elevated levels of lead and that the city had not done enough to test homes there.
Now, Amador said, it appears to be unclear how much of the East Ward is impacted by contamination, if at all.
“We don’t know what is the percentage of contamination that exists in the East Ward,” Amador told Adeem as he stood at the podium. “There is a problem in the east that should have been recognized from the very beginning and it was not.”
The exchange between the two men, which included several interruptions by both officials, grew so heated that Council President Mildred C. Crump suggested Adeem stop answering questions.
“Director, do yourself a favor, do not respond,” Crump said. “We are getting absolutely nowhere.”
Shortly after, Amador turned toward council members on the dias as Crump was trying to bring order to the meeting and blurted out: “Shut up.”
Crump opted to move the meeting into executive session, which requires the public to leave council chambers so officials may debate issues in private.
Kenyatta Stewart, the city’s corporate counsel, said the reason for the executive session was because Amador’s comments suggesting his area of the city has contamination problems would open the city up to litigation by residents who could cite the comments of a public official whether they were accurate or not.
“I can’t let him sit there and say that,” Stewart said after the public portion of the meeting.
Adeem, along with lead service line replacement project manager, Melvin Waldrop, presented a lead service line replacement program split into 10 phases with work stretching into January 2021.
City officials are aiming to use a $120 million loan from Essex County to pay for the replacement of all the city’s lead service lines in 24 to 30 months.
The number of additional lead service lines presented Tuesday more than doubled in the South Ward from 2,380 lead service lines to 4,810. In the North Ward, the number increased from 2,553 to 4,555 and in the East Ward it went up from 2,367 lead service lines to 3,915.
Amador said he took issue with the way the city handled what he saw was a lack of testing in the East Ward and conflicting information. When asked after the meeting if he still believed the administration when it said the East Ward was not impacted by elevated levels like the rest of the city, he said no.
“We have examples of where the contamination exists and they should have been dealt with from the very beginning, and they were not,” Amador said.
Amador said all the homes identified as being serviced by lead lines, which includes his own home, should be tested by the city as a precautionary measure because the contamination issue stems from the lead lines, not the water source.
“The residents of the East Ward need to understand that and they’re not,” Amador said. “There seems to be a lot of confusion about the whole thing.”