NEWARK, NJ (NWN) – On a recent sun-drenched morning, the staccato rhythm of a jackhammer rattled buildings as a work crew dug to remove an old pipe carrying water down Newark Street – And potentially a poison – a tiny apartment building.
The new pipe is copper. The old one was covered with lead, which can be harmful to human health even at a microscopic level.
A water service line made of the toxic metal was one of more than 20,000 in the city in 2019 amid public outcry over revelations of high levels of tap water in schools and homes across the city.
Less than three years after work began, the replacement project, initially estimated to take 10 years, is almost complete.
City residents who have switched to bottled water during the crisis are making it easier to breathe – and drink. Newark, once condemned and sued for its sluggish response to the problem, is being held up as a potential national model.
“I’m just glad it’s happening and it’s finally being taken care of, so we finally get to drink tap water again,” said Newark resident Cesar Velarde, watching the crew work. “I have three cases of bottled water right now. I don’t drink tap water because of this.”
The pipe replacement project has been a confirmation of sorts for Mayor Ras Baraka, who in 2018 faced mounting public pressure after the National Resources Defense Council, a non-profit environmental advocacy group, sued, claiming that New Jersey’s most The large city has failed to adequately monitor lead levels and belittle residents.
Deteriorating lead-lined pipes, some a century old, are a problem in many older American cities, a recent example being Benton Harbor, Michigan. But Newark’s replacement project went ahead faster than expected, thanks to an infusion of state and local funds and an amendment to state law to protect homeowners from bearing the cost.
“I will feel better when we are completely finished, but I am excited that we are at the end of this thing. It will be a huge milestone for us,” Baraka said last week.
Newark’s efforts settled the lawsuit last January, and garnered praise from the National Resources Defense Council.
“It’s a very significant change from the early days when the city was in denial that they had a major problem,” said Eric Olsson, NRDC’s senior strategic director for health. “We are pointing this out as a model for other cities to follow. They are doing it much faster than other cities have even tried to do so. “
The NRDC recently estimated that there are about 12 million lead service lines in the US, with nearly half of all states not even tracking the number of lead lines within their borders, they found.
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 US rises sharply after the Flint, Michigan, scandal In which city leaders shut down water sources in 2014 to save money. This led to criminal charges, though many were later dropped, and a $641 million settlement for residents of the poor, majority Black City.
$1 trillion infrastructure plan Passed by the House on Friday night and now awaiting President Joe Biden’s signature, that includes $15 billion to replace lead pipes.
Several hundred lead lines in Newark have yet to be replaced, many connected to buildings that were previously inaccessible in the project.
This process can take up to five hours, although many replacements take less time because they involve small pipes that can be pulled out and replaced by making a small cut in the curbside, forpersons at Underground Utilities Mark Weklick, a company that has replaced thousands of pipes in Newark.
More than 70% of Newark residents are renters, and many buildings are owned by limited-liability corporations elsewhere, which can be difficult to track, said Karim Adim, director of the city’s water and sewer department.
“It’s hard for Texas or Missouri or Louisiana or California to pursue an LLC,” Adim said. “Tenants always want to replace the line, but they don’t own the property.”
This allowed the Newark City Council to pass an ordinance to give tenants access to buildings. Amendments to state law paved the way for using public funds for the replacement—which can cost thousands of dollars per home—and Newark was able to borrow $120 million. All those efforts allowed the city of over 310,000 people to expedite its line replacement to 120 per day.
Adim said the city has also created a program in which about 75 unemployed and underemployed residents have been trained to work in line replacement crews.
Looking back, Baraka described the confrontation with the National Resources Defense Council as “difficult, tense, unrequited love to be lost”, but admitted to having learned some lessons.
“We were so busy trying to fight the NRDC, we were negotiating with them and not the residents,” he said. “We thought they were wrong and wanted to monitor the city, and we already had oversight. So instead of being aggressive we were trying to fight that and saying, ‘We have this problem, let’s go outside. Go fix it.'”
For some, the praise for Newark’s achievement must be taken in context. Yvette Jordan, a teacher and president of the Newark Education Workers Caucus, who joined the lawsuit brought by the Resource Council, said it was no coincidence that many of the city’s actions came at a time when Baraka was seeking re-election and Newark was in the race To be the home of Amazon’s second headquarters.
“It showed us that the community should get up and say something,” said Jordan, whose own home at one point showed high levels of lead in its drinking water.
“Without the community screaming and yelling and saying, ‘We need this,’ nothing is going to happen. The state and federal government also have to say, ‘We’re going to do this,’ and have the political will to do it.” Without that political will, without the stars aligning, I don’t think you’ll see Newark as this national model.