Op-Ed: Lessons from Newark’s aggressive replacement of lead service lines

Mayor Ras Baraka says key takeaway is that it was an ‘all-in’ effort, joining government forces with muscular civic willpower
Ras J. Baraka

The first major changes to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Lead and Copper Rule, which are designed to reduce lead traces in drinking water, were announced before Christmas, to give cities plagued by high lead levels some guidelines and goals.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said the new rules were a top priority to “accelerate reductions of lead in drinking water to better protect our children and communities.”

Acceleration is the operative word. This problem, like many health issues, disproportionately affects Black and brown people in older homes in cities across America, but lead is found in drinking water indiscriminately, in suburbs and rural communities alike.

Among the new rules is the gradual removal of lead service lines that connect individual homes and buildings to the water mains, giving municipalities a 33-year window for full replacement.

In Newark, when faced with a spike in lead traces in our water, we eventually found the finances to replace all of our 18,720 lead service lines. This massive infrastructure program, led by our Water & Sewer Director Kareem Adeem, is now in the final stages of completion, and has been done at no cost to homeowners — which is key because it ensures all will be replaced, not only for those who can afford it.

Blueprint for other cities?

With almost 17,000 lines already replaced and this massive project nearing completion, the announcement of the new EPA guidelines seems like an appropriate time for me to reflect on the challenges, the lessons learned, and perhaps present a blueprint for other cities.

When our trace lead levels rose in 2017, we immediately began to think about full lead line replacement and the biggest challenge, of course, was funding. Originally, our plan was to replace all the lines over a 10-year period, and in August 2017, we began discussions with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection on a Lead Service Line Replacement program. Those discussions resulted in the DEP announcing a statewide $30 million fund, $1 million in principal forgiveness.

A year later, the Newark City Council approved a $75 million bond ordinance, which would have allowed us to replace 15,000 lines over eight years. With enough money to break ground, we faced another legislative hurdle. Since lead service lines are the property of the homeowner, we had to work with our Essex County delegation on legislation at the state level that would allow for the use of public funds on private property for the purpose of replacing lead service lines.

The second critical piece of legislation, done at the municipal level, allowed the city to replace the lead service line without the homeowner’s permission. While controversial, this was necessary because 74% of Newark residents are renters, and tracking down landlords would have slowed the process and left some homes undone.

We broke ground on the lead service line replacement program less than two years ago, but the game-changer was Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo’s willingness to use the county’s Aaa bond rating for the city to comfortably secure a $120 million bond, allowing us to accelerate the work in a way that sets national precedents.

Keeping residents informed

Through the process, there was also the challenge of keeping residents informed with credible information, educating them on the proper use of the 40,000 PUR filters we handed out, while mobilizing our employees and volunteers in these efforts. We also distributed bottled water after a very small sample of PUR filters did not meet our lead reduction expectations. Within weeks, the filters proved 99% effective when used properly.

We also had to educate ourselves. When our lead levels spiked in 2017, we hired CDM Smith, one of the world’s most respected environmental companies, which created the EPA’s first blueprints and standards for the development and maintenance of water pollution control plants back in the 1970s.

CDM Smith helped us analyze our water sample data and the EPA simultaneously analyzed a harvested lead pipe from our system to microscopically determine how the corrosion control failed to properly coat the pipes, causing the material to deteriorate.

Because of these actions we were able to quickly and accurately pinpoint the reason for our exceedances and implement corrective action that would be effective and scientifically sound. When the science showed our corrosion control had faltered we were able to adjust the water chemistry and added a new corrosion control system, which eventually brought our trace lead level to within EPA guidelines.

Our aggressive program was one reason the EPA awarded the Newark Board of Education a $7.5 million grant under the new Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation (WIIN) Act, to help strip older schools of any remaining fixtures or tubing that contain any amounts of lead and fund our existing education and outreach programs. That money will help the city to continue to strive toward the goal of complete eradication of lead in our drinking water.

You can’t go it alone

There are many lessons learned from this chapter in Newark history. The first is, it can’t be done alone. This was an intensive, collaborative effort between our water department; our partners in county, state and federal government; our volunteers, activists and residents, all fully engaged in every aspect of restoring the quality of our water and eradicating unhealthy lead levels, once and for all.

The implementation of such “all-in” joining of government forces and muscular civic willpower must start at home, in our own communities. National and state guidelines, though pragmatic, will not force local governments to act as swiftly, no matter how good the intent.

The EPA’s new rules are a step in the right direction but, quite frankly, it is impossible to legislate the internal will or self-demand of a local government. I hope other leaders look to see that full lead line replacement does not have to be an eternal infrastructure nightmare. We have the power to fix it and we owe it to our current and future residents to find solutions that will protect them.