NEWARK, NJ (AP) – On a recent sun-drenched morning, the jerky rhythms of a jackhammer ricocheted off buildings as a crew dug a Newark street to remove an aging pipe that carried water – and possibly poison – to a small apartment building.
The new pipe is copper. The old one was lined with lead, which, even in minimal quantities, can harm human health.
The plumbing was one of more than 20,000 built of toxic metal that the city began replacing in 2019 amid public outcry over reports of high lead levels in tap water in schools and homes across the city.
Less than three years after the commencement of work, the replacement project, originally envisioned for up to 10 years, is almost complete.
The townspeople who switched to bottled water during the crisis breathe easier – and drink. Newark, once criticized and prosecuted for its slowness in solving the problem, is seen as a potential national model.
“I’m just happy that this is happening and that it’s finally taken care of, so we can finally drink tap water again,” Newark resident Cesar Velarde said as he watched the team work. “I now have three boxes of bottled water. Because of this, I no longer drink tap water. “
The pipe replacement project was a kind of excuse for Mayor Ras Baraki, who faced mounting public pressure in 2018 after the National Resource Defense Council, a nonprofit environmental group, filed a lawsuit claiming that New Jersey’s largest city failed to properly control lead levels and downplayed the importance of the problem to residents.
Century old worn-out lead-lined pipes are a problem in many older cities in the United States, with Benton Harbor, Michigan being a recent example. But the replacement project in Newark has progressed faster than expected, thanks to injections of state and local funds and an amendment to state law to protect homeowners from having to bear the costs.
“I will feel better when we are completely finished, but I am very glad that we have come to an end. This will be a huge milestone for us, ”Baraka said last week.
Newark’s efforts led to a settlement last January and received praise from the National Resources Defense Council.
“This is a pretty significant turnaround from the early days when the city denied having a lead problem,” said Eric Olson, NRDC’s senior strategic director for health. “We point to him as a role model for other cities. They are doing it much faster than other cities have even tried to do it. “
The NRDC recently estimated that there are up to 12 million customer service lines in the United States. According to them, almost half of all states do not even track the number of service lines within their borders.
Lead in drinking water has been linked to developmental delays in children and can damage the brain, red blood cells, and kidneys.
The problem of removing lead from drinking water in the United States has been a major concern since the Flint, Michigan scandal when the city switched water supplies in 2014 to save money. This led to criminal charges, although many were later dropped, and $ 641 million in compensation for residents of the impoverished, mostly black, city.
The $ 1 trillion infrastructure plan, passed by the House of Representatives on Friday night and awaiting signature by President Joe Biden, includes $ 15 billion to replace lead pipes.
In Newark, several hundred guide lines have yet to be replaced, many of which relate to buildings that were not previously available in the project.
This 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 by making a smaller cut in the curb, said Mark Vleklick, head of Underground Utilities, the company that made this is. thousands of pipe replacements in Newark.
More than 70% of Newark residents are tenants, and many of the buildings are owned by limited liability corporations based elsewhere that are difficult to track, said Karim Adim, director of the city’s water and sanitation department.
“It’s hard to chase an LLC all the way to Texas, Missouri, Louisiana or California,” Adim said. “Tenants always want the line to be replaced, but they don’t own the property.”
This led to the Newark City Council passing an ordinance allowing tenants to grant access to buildings. A state amendment cleared the way for government money to be used to replace a home that could cost thousands of dollars per home, and Newark was able to borrow $ 120 million. All of these efforts have enabled the city of over 310,000 to accelerate line replacements to 120 per day.
The city also created a program that trained about 75 unemployed and underemployed residents to work with line replacement teams, Adim said.
In retrospect, Baraka described the confrontation with the National Resource Defense Council as “tough, tense, without losing love,” but admitted that he had learned some lessons.
“We were so busy fighting the NRDC, we were talking to them, not the residents,” he said. “We thought they were wrong and wanted to control the city, but we already had control. So we tried to fight it, rather than go on the offensive and say, “We have this problem, let’s go out and fix it.”
For some, praise for Newark’s accomplishments must be put in context. Yvette Jordan, a teacher and chairman of the Newark Education Workers’ faction, which joined the suit filed by the resource board, said it was no coincidence that many of the city’s actions took place while Baraka was seeking re-election and Newark was running for election. to become home to Amazon’s second headquarters.
“It showed us that the community has to stand up and say something,” said Jordan, whose own home at one point showed high levels of lead in drinking water.
“Without the community screaming and screaming and saying, ‘We need this,’ nothing will happen. The state and federal governments must also say, “We’re going to do this,” and have the political will to do so. Without this political will, without the coincidence of stars, I don’t think you would see Newark as this national model. ”