Contractors dig firmly into the solid winter dirt outside Kristin Burks-Mullings’ North Ward home. Her water pipes are among the first out of 1,500 to be swapped out in phase one of Newark’s Lead Service Line Replacement Program. It’s a welcome step after the city received four violations for elevated lead levels since 2017. Families like the Mullings began taking matters into their own hands.
“We’ve been drinking bottled water, and I cook with bottled water,” Mullings said.
“We’ll be replacing approximately 15,000 lead service lines over about an eight-year period,” said Newark Mayor Ras Baraka.
Baraka said so far 1,800 families have signed up for the program. It will cost more than $75 million to complete the residential project. Until then the city continues handing out water filters, roughly 33,000 to date.
The problem was discovered after the corrosion control-inhibitor the city uses to treat the water stopped working and lead from old pipes in homes began leaching into drinking water. The city insists that the water source itself is fine.
When Baraka gave his State of the City address Tuesday night, protesters rallied outside, calling attention to the problem.
Homeowners won’t have to pay full cost
Homeowners are responsible for the pipes that start at the curbside main connection and go all the way up to the house. Without the new bond program, they would have to pay out of pocket and that can be expensive — up to $10,000. Instead, property owners are on the hook for no more than $1,000, payable in installments over the course of the year thanks to new state legislation.
“For this first phase, from our state water bank we’re able to provide financing of $12 million. That’s a loan as the financing from the water bank comes, but in this case Newark will be eligible for up to $9 million in principal forgiveness,” said New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Catherine McCabe.
Newark officials have been going door to door with the help of Clean Water Action to ensure residents sign up, prioritizing those most affected first.
“I already filled out the initial forms and I’ll go back into the house and sign up. And I hope I’ll be one of the earlier people to have it done, I’m thrilled,” said Newark resident Marsha McGowan.
Phase two will begin later this year. There’s no deadline for homeowners to apply to the program. More than 20 other New Jersey cities are facing a similar crisis.