Newark pushes mandatory replacement of lead water service lines

Move comes amid city effort to go door to door to get permission for work crews to access properties

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka has asked the city council to approve an ordinance allowing the municipal government to replace every lead water service line in the city, with or without the permission of property owners.

The replacement of lead service lines leading to individual properties is the centerpiece of the city’s long-term solution for a contamination problem that has plagued Newark’s water system in recent years and was heightened this summer when tests showed that tap filters were not adequately removing the dangerous element from the water.

Baraka has sought to fast-track the city’s ongoing program to replace an estimated 18,000 lead service lines at no cost to property owners who participate in the city’s replacement effort. Officials are working on a $120 million loan through Essex County that would allow the work to be done in three years, rather than the 10 years it could have taken under the city’s original schedule.

Baraka’s move, which he said would make Newark the first in the nation to require a complete replacement of all lead service lines, comes the day after his administration convened the second in a series of meetings to enlist volunteers who will fan out across the city to secure access permission from property owners.

Under the proposed ordinance, property owners can either sign up to have city work crews replace service lines at no cost, or replace them at their own expense within 90 days of the measure’s effective date. The city will move legally to replace service lines on properties where owners fail to respond or cannot be found.

“We need to get more property owners to sign up for [the] lead service line replacement program at no cost,” Baraka said in a statement. “Newark is a city of renters, and too often landlords either can’t be found or show a lack of interest in this important health initiative. This ordinance will enable the city to replace all lead service lines and to do so quickly.”

A critic responds to a call for help

On Wednesday night, some 50 people came to City Hall to answer Baraka’s call for volunteers. Among them was resident Yvette Jordan, a leader of a civic group that has gone to court over the Baraka administration’s response to the city’s water problems.

She said her main interest is making her city a better place to live.

“That’s why I started, yeah. So it’s not as if I’m an outside agitator. I’m here. I’m concerned. And the reason I’m doing this is because I want lead service line replacement. They’re doing it, so I’m here,” she said.

“I’m here to volunteer and my husband is as well,” she said. “However, my eye still is on what is going on and the enforcement of it.”

Credit: NJTV News
Yvette Jordan
Jordan is a founding member of the New Education Workers Caucus, which is a co-plaintiff in a lawsuit filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council seeking in part to compel the city to expand its response to the elevated lead levels.

Also on hand Wednesday was Michael Hobbs, who lives in the South Ward and said he was planning on enlisting lots of help in the city’s outreach effort.

“I’m a graduate student at NJIT and former president of the graduate student association,” he said. “And my goal is to get a thousand NJIT students to assist the mayor in knocking on doors.”

Baraka said City Hall is also reaching out to corporations and non-profits.

“We’re just leaving no stone unturned,” he said. “We want everybody who’s affiliated with anybody. We want them to come and volunteer and help us do this.”

Hoping to avoid court

Baraka on Wednesday night also discussed his plan to introduce the mandatory line-replacement ordinance.

Jordan said she had concerns about its legality. “Hopefully, he has checked that in terms of the legal ramifications,” she said. “So, that’s what I’m concerned about.”

One legal expert called the ordinance “aggressive” and said the city is tapping powers that can collide with Fourth Amendment protections against unwarranted search and seizure. The expert said the only clearly, legally admissible way to carry this out is to go to court.

The mayor said he hopes it doesn’t come to that, saying that a long legal process could bog down the replacement of the service lines.

Newark started handing out bottled water after filtered tap water showed elevated lead levels in two of three homes tested. Officials are now awaiting results from an expanded testing survey, comprising 225 homes, to better determine how widespread the failure of the filters is to adequately remove lead contamination. Those results are due within two weeks.

Baraka said the state local finance board will vote on the replacement program’s $120 million loan on Sept. 11. He plans to start signing contracts for line replacements right away.

Property owners have shown great interest in the city replacement program, he added.

“I would say, out of about 98 percent of the coffee klatches we’re doing,” Baraka said, “the only thing people are concerned about at those meetings is, ‘when can I get my lead service line replaced,’ ‘how do I sign up,’ and ‘how long is it going to take for them to be in my house?’ And, ‘are you sure we don’t have to pay?’”