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 says so far 1,800 families have signed up for the program. It’ll cost over $75 million to complete the entire 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. It’s been a big problem for Newark whose residents say they’ve been marginalized.
Protesters rallied outside Baraka’s State of the City address Tuesday night calling attention to the problem. Though the city insists the water source itself is fine.
“This is the ultimate place where we want to be, actually changing the water infrastructure which is very, very old in this city,” Baraka said.
Homeowners are responsible for the pipes that start at the main connection at the curb and go all the way up to the house. Without the new bond program they’d 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. But with more than 20 other New Jersey cities facing a similar crisis, this may be just the first step in a permanent solution.