After the drinking water crisis, Newark wins the war on lead

NEWARK, NJ – On a sun-drenched morning, the staccato rhythms of a jackhammer bounced off buildings as a work team dug into a Newark street to remove an aging pipe that carried water – and possibly poison – to a small apartment building.

The new pipe is made of copper. The old one was lined with lead, which can be harmful to health in even the smallest amounts.

The water supply line was one of more than 20,000 made from the toxic metal the city replaced in 2019 amid public outrage over revelations of high levels of lead in tap water in schools and homes across the city.

Less than three years after the start of the work, the replacement project, initially estimated to be up to 10 years, is almost complete.

City dwellers who switched to bottled water during the crisis are breathing – and drinking – easier. Newark, once scourged and sued for its sluggish response to the problem, is held up as a potential national model.

“I’m just glad it happened and that it will finally be fixed so that we can finally drink tap water again,” said Cesar Velarde from Newark as he watched the crew at work. “I have three cases of bottled water right now. That’s why I don’t drink any more water from the tap. “

The pipe replacement project provided a kind of justification for Mayor Ras Baraka, who came under increasing public pressure in 2018 after the National Resources Defense Council, an environmental nonprofit, was sued and alleged that New Jersey’s largest city failed to adequately monitor lead levels and downplayed the problem for local residents.

In many older US cities, wearing lead-lined pipes, some of which are a century old, are a problem, a recent example being Benton Harbor, Michigan. But the Newark replacement project was moving faster than expected, thanks to an infusion of state and local funds and a change in state law to protect homeowners from paying the cost.

“I’ll feel better when we’re completely through, but I’m glad we’re at the end of this. It will be a big milestone for us, “said Baraka last week.

Newark’s efforts resulted in the lawsuit being settled last January and lauded by the National Resources Defense Council.

“It’s been a pretty significant turning point since the early days when the city denied it had a problem with governance,” said Erik Olson, NRDC senior strategic director for health. “We refer to it as a role model for other cities. They do it much faster than other cities have ever tried. “

The NRDC recently estimated that there are up to 12 million lead service lines in the United States. Almost half of all states don’t even track the number of lead lines within their boundaries.

Lead in drinking water has been linked to developmental delays in children and can damage the brain, red blood cells, and kidneys.

The challenge of removing lead from drinking water in the United States came into focus after the Flint, Michigan scandal when city guides switched water sources to save money in 2014. That led to criminal charges, although many were later dropped, and a $ 641 million settlement for residents of the poor, mostly black city.

The $ 1 trillion infrastructure plan, passed by the House of Representatives on Friday evening and now awaiting signature by President Joe Biden, includes $ 15 billion to replace lead pipes.

Hundreds of lead lines remain to be replaced in Newark, many of which are connected to buildings previously inaccessible on the project.

The process can take up to five hours, although many replacements take less time because they involve smaller pipes that can be pulled out and replaced with a smaller cut in the curb, said Mark Wleklik, foreman at Underground Utilities, a company that that has done thousands of pipe replacements in Newark.

More than 70% of Newark’s residents are renters, and many of the buildings are owned by limited liability companies based elsewhere that are difficult to track, said Kareem Adeem, director of the city’s water and sanitation department.

“It’s hard to chase an LLC into Texas or Missouri or Louisiana or California,” Adeem said. “The tenants always want the line to be replaced, but they don’t own the property.”

This resulted in Newark City Council enacting an ordinance allowing tenants to enter buildings. A change in state law paved the way for public funds to be used for replacements – which can cost thousands of dollars per home – and Newark was able to borrow $ 120 million. All of these efforts enabled the city of more than 310,000 residents to accelerate its line exchanges to up to 120 per day.

The city has also launched a program that trained about 75 unemployed and underemployed residents to work on the line replacement teams, Adeem said.

In retrospect, Baraka described the confrontation with the National Resources Defense Council as “tough, tense, with no loss of love,” but he admitted he had learned a few lessons.

“We were so busy fighting the NRDC that we were talking to them and not the residents,” he said. “We thought they were wrong and wanted to oversee the city, and we already had oversight. So we tried to fight that instead of going on the offensive and saying, ‘We have this problem, let’s go and fix it.’ “

For some, the praise for Newark’s performance needs to be seen in context. Yvette Jordan, a teacher and chair of the Newark Education Workers Caucus who joined the resource council’s lawsuit, said it was no coincidence that much of the city’s actions came at a time when Baraka was trying to be re-elected and Newark was in the running was to house the second headquarters of Amazon.

“That showed us that the community has to get up and say something,” said Jordan, whose own house had high levels of lead in the drinking water at times.

“Without the community that screams and screams and says, ‘We need this,’ nothing will happen. The state and the federal government must also say: “We will do this” and have the political will to do so. Without that political will, without the alignment of the stars, I don’t think you would see Newark as that national model. “

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