Proposed $120M Bond Will Speed Newark’s Push to Get Lead Out of Drinking Water

John Reitmeyer | September 12, 2019 | Politics
Additional funding could help the Brick City resolve its drinking-water crisis in two to three years, cutting time needed by half

Credit: Creative Commons
Water faucet
A key state agency in Trenton has signed off on a proposed $120 million bond issue that’s being rushed to market to help officials in Newark deal with an ongoing drinking-water crisis.

Under a plan that won final approval yesterday from the state Department of Community Affairs Local Finance Board, bonds will be issued by the Essex County Improvement Authority. The proceeds will help fund the ongoing replacement of lead service lines that have been blamed for helping to contaminate drinking water in many Newark homes.

The proposed bond issue had already been approved by city and county officials in advance of yesterday’s vote in Trenton. The bond should enable the city to cut in half the time it will take to finish replacing the service lines.

Credit: NJTV News
Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka (left) announce bond issue to help Newark through its drinking-water crisis.
“The permanent solution is to replace our lead service lines and expedite this process,” Newark Mayor Ras Baraka said yesterday. “The Local Finance Board’s adoption of the bond provides us with the financial backing to do so, and significantly increase the pace of our work.”

The replacement of lead service lines leading to individual properties in Newark comes as concerns about lead in the city’s drinking-water system heightened this summer. This was after tests showed that some tap-water filters installed as a stopgap were not adequately removing all traces of the contaminant.

Failing the lead test

Newark officials started handing out bottled water to residents last month after tests of filtered tap water showed elevated lead levels in two of three homes monitored. Results from additional testing are still pending.

Experts believe acidic water from Newark’s Pequannock water-treatment plant has caused lead to corrode out of the service lines in sections served by the plant; up to 18,000 lines are being replaced in response to those concerns. Replacing the lines can cost as much as $5,000 to $10,000 per home, according to city officials.

Newark has already replaced an estimated 770 lines after getting some funding from the state. But the city’s original plan called for the initiative to take up to a decade.

Thanks to the proposed bond issue — which the city will likely pay back over several decades as a low-interest loan — the timeline for completing the service-line replacement has been cut to two to three years, officials said. The city should also save some money since the bond issue will take advantage of Essex County’s superior bond rating.

A first for Newark

In addition to receiving the bond funds — which could arrive as early as next month — Newark is also advancing a local measure that would make the city the first in the nation to require the replacement of all lead service lines with or without cooperation from property owners.

Under the proposed city ordinance, property owners can sign up to have city workers replace their service lines at no cost, or they can pay to replace them at their own expense within 90 days of the measure’s effective date. If approved, the city will be able to legally replace service lines on properties where owners fail to respond or cannot be located.

Meanwhile, city officials are still awaiting results from an expanded survey, comprising 225 homes, to better determine how widespread the failure of the tap-water filters has been. And earlier this week, lawmakers held a hearing in Trenton to determine how well public water systems across New Jersey are complying with a 2017 law that sought to upgrade safety and oversight standards.

Among other figures reviewed during the hearing was data from the state Department of Environmental Protection that showed 94 percent of the state’s water systems submitted paperwork required under the law, and 71 percent of those were certified to be in compliance with the new standards.