A workman drills a hole in a Grand Avenue basement wall to install copper piping in the final stage of Newark’s lead line replacement program. Upstairs, 82-year-old Juanita Rodgers welcomed the upgrade.
“That’s a good thing because I’ve been here many, many years drinking this stuff and we didn’t know it,” Rodgers said.
Three years ago, Newark discovered its corrosion-control inhibitor stopped working and that caused lead to leach from old pipes. The federal government said Newark was violating clean water standards. Newark urged residents to stop drinking the water and gave them water filters. The city embarked on an eight-year program to replace thousands of lead service lines.
“I’m glad they’re replacing them. And I’m glad it’s not costing us nothing. So that’s a good thing,” said Newark homeowner Kelvin Watts. “They were charging you, they had you taking special insurance, and now that they’ve cancelled that, they’re going to do it for free. So that’s good.”
Last year, Essex County loaned Newark $120 million to speed up the replacements at no cost to homeowners. Three years after the violations and a year after getting the loan, Newark reports it has replaced almost 15,000 of 18,000 lead service lines with copper pipes way ahead of schedule.
“The work we did with Essex County executive Joe DiVincenzo was incredibly impactful to the city of Newark, to the residents, and not just Newark, by the way, to Belleville, to Hillside. And in spite of all the challenges we’re facing, economically, COVID-19, everything that’s going on, we’re still almost complete with this lead service replacement program,” Newark mayor Ras Baraka said.
“This is unheard of, what’s been done. This has not happened in any place in New Jersey, whether it’s Paterson, Trenton, or even look at Flint, Michigan, still isn’t done,” DiVincenzo said.
Residents can sign up to have their private lead lines replaced. The city says homeowners have been great partners during the pandemic.
Crews are replacing 65 lines a day
“Hats off to residents. When we were running short on personal protective equipment, the residents started coming out in certain areas of the city and also gave the contractors masks, booties for their feet to come into their house. So all that shows is Newark is strong, our residents believe in Newark,” said Kareem Adeem, director of Newark Water and Sewer Department.
How can other cities replicate what Newark has done? City leaders say, by committing to getting it done.
“Not only that it’s reparable, but it’s doable. We say, if we put the politics aside and come together, like the state, the county, the city,” Adeem said.
“You need the money. You need a commitment politically, you need a commitment and by the grace of God, we had one in the city and the county to the get this done. The state supported us. You need a commitment, all hands on deck, commitment to get this accomplished,” Baraka said.
Newark still urges residents to filter their water until it says to stop. The water director says crews are replacing about 65 lead lines a day, with 5,000 to 6,000 to go by next spring in all five wards.