Newark Nears Finish On Lead Pipe Removal In Record Time

Newark is on the verge of reaching its goal of replacing every single lead pipe that pumps water to homes in New Jersey’s largest city. So far they have achieved a record performance: more than 22,000 lead connection cables have been replaced with copper pipes.

City officials say all known lead service lines – garden hose-sized pipes that connect underground water lines to homes – have been removed. In the next two weeks, the construction teams will check again whether service lines that are marked as replaced or “not lead” in the city files are really lead-free. You currently have 1,000 more pipes to check.

“Say the records say you have no managerial service. Well, this homeowner, this resident, they are concerned, ”said Kareem Adeem, Newark director of water and sewage. “It only takes a minute to dig up and validate and show them why we’re not replacing their pipe.”

Adeem said the entire project will be completed by the end of the month, less than three years after the city laid the groundwork for the project. The historic achievement comes years after the city’s water crisis exploded and comparisons were made to Flint, Michigan.

Now Newark will replace its lead pipes in front of Flint and will be hailed as a model – even by its fiercest critics.

“They have quickly replaced thousands of leading service lines and done so in a timeframe that is much faster than most other places have ever tried,” said Erik Olson of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the group that sued Newark over his in 2018 increased lead content. The environmental group set up shop with the city earlier this year. NEW Caucus, made up of Newark educators, was also part of the litigation and was instrumental in keeping the city accountable to its residents and educating the public about the dangers of lead.

Construction teams are working at Gillette Place in Newark on September 30, 2021 to replace a lead line with copper.

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Construction teams are working at Gillette Place in Newark on September 30, 2021 to replace a lead line with copper.

Karen Yi / WNYC

Lead is particularly harmful to pregnant mothers and the developing children. Although no amount of lead is safe, the federal government sets permissible values ​​in drinking water that water suppliers are not allowed to exceed. More than 4,000 children in New Jersey are diagnosed with lead poisoning each year, mostly from ingestion of lead paint.

Newark originally planned to replace its leading service lines over a 10-year period, but in 2019 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency hired the city to distribute bottled water to thousands of residents. As Newark made national headlines and lead levels in the water continued to rise, Essex County officials stepped in and agreed to tie up $ 120 million on behalf of the city to expedite its lead replacement program. These debts are settled through a lease agreement between the Port Authority and Newark.

Newark City Council also enacted an ordinance that allowed construction crews to access senior service lines on private properties without permission from the property owner, eliminating the need to hunt absent landlords in a town where three-quarters of residents rent their homes.

The state also allowed Newark to use public funds to fund works on private property. Lead lines in Newark are privately owned, but the city is replacing the lines for free.

“With political will, and especially where funds are available, it is possible to replace thousands of lead service lines very quickly and efficiently,” said Olson.

“You have to come to the community, replace all the leading service lines street by street at once. When you have the equipment and staff there, it’s much more efficient, it’s much cheaper per household, and you can get it done quickly. And that’s really one of Newark’s most important lessons. “

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed law this year requiring water companies to replace every single main line in the state over the next 10 years. The American Water Works Association estimates there are 350,000 leading service lines in the state, the fifth most in the country. The most recent inventory of water systems submitted to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection shows that at least 167,354 known pipes must be replaced. That is about 14% of 1.2 million pipes inventoried.

But nearly 1.1 million are made from unknown materials, about 85% of all pipes.

Adeem said Newark had sturdy inventory that allowed the city to move quickly block by block. Newark also made the program a local recruitment initiative. He said that of the 600 jobs created, 250 were local employees and 85 were previously unemployed residents.

“We also had mom and pop stores that could supply materials … all kinds of things that add to the local economy,” he said.

State test results show that Newark’s lead levels have not exceeded federal standards since early 2020. The city is also investing millions in improving the infrastructure of the Pequannock water treatment plant, which pumps water to half the city, along with neighboring towns like Belleville, Bloomfield and Nutley.

For Margarita Reyes, who lives in Newark, seeing construction workers on her street and across town has helped her regain confidence that her water is safe again.

“I hope to god we can drink it again,” she said as she waited for construction workers to check her service line.

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