There’s no denying that the Flint, Mich., water crisis in 2014 shone a light on the issue of lead in drinking water and the potential hazards lurking underground in many cities and towns. There’s also no denying the nation’s infrastructure — including water mains — is aging and in need of replacement.
Officials in Newark, N.J., said thanks to the collaborative efforts of government officials and private parties, they’ve made “remarkable” progress in replacing the lead lines in the city, one of the oldest in the U.S. They could accelerate what was initially expected to be an 8- to 10-year project to a two- to three-year one.
Director of Water and Sewer Kareem Adeem said Newark’s first lead lines were installed in the 1850s, with the last one being installed in 1952. The city has good records going back that far, and through them, there are 18,700 known and another 6,000 unknown lead lines, for a total of 24,000. As of mid-May, the city has already abated almost 22,000 households and 19,000 lines.
Adeem said it was June 2017 when officials notified and provided data to the Environmental Protection Agency that the city had its first exceedance violation in 25 years. The city tested a sampling of 100 homes, and 11 of them tested over the allowable 15 parts per billion.
The prior year, in 2016, a school system had lead in its water, but officials found there was no connection to the city’s lines. Once that was discovered, then governor, Chris Christie, ordered testing for 150 of the largest schools in the system. It was at that time, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Agency came up with new testing requirements for all water purveyors, according to Adeem.
Officials later discovered under a prior administration around 2010-2013, the city had “struggled to meet simultaneous compliance,” and a change in the sodium silicate at that time could have played a part in later effectiveness of protecting the pipes from corrosion.
Adeem has been with the city for 30 years, 24 to 25 of them with the water department. Water and Wastewater Spokesperson Mark Di Ionna said after the former superintendent passed away in November 2018, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka “felt confident enough in him” to put him in charge in the middle of this challenging time. Di Ionna praised the work Adeem has done.
The city of Newark is served by two water treatment plants. The Pequannock plant serves half the city, and it was that portion of the city where issues were occurring. The Wanaque treatment plant serves the other half of the city, and there were no issues at that plant. After the first exceedance, the city began holding community meetings and sending out press releases, mailings and other forms of communication to inform the residents.
In August 2017, Gov. Christie and the NJDEP launched a campaign with a $30 million fund to start replacing lead service lines across the state and ramped up required testing.
“Newark started engaging with the state as early as the summer of 2017,” Adeem said.
In fact, he reported Newark had an application in with the state as early as 2012 to replace lead service lines with state revolving funds, but the money wasn’t there yet. In March 2018, the city launched its lead service line replacement program, and for several months, workers went door-to-door informing residents of the program while handing out test kits and water filters.
Adeem said they went block by block to every house because they wanted residents to know they weren’t skipping anyone and could verify when they knew their house — because it was built later — did not have a lead line.
The city invested $195 million into this program, and in June 2018, the city of Newark passed a bond ordinance of $75 million. Adeem said the city also received $120 million through the county. Another thing the city did that most municipalities have not done, according to Adeem, is test the filters workers had handed out after they were in use. This testing found three of them were not performing as expected “under extreme conditions.”
Adeem said with “an abundance of caution,” the city distributed bottled water for two months — August through September 2019.
There were two pieces of legislation passed, which accelerated Newark’s lead service line program.
In June 2018, a collaborative effort between the city of Newark, the governor’s office and the Essex County Delegation created an amendment to legislation, allowing the use of public funds on private property for the purpose of replacing lead service lines going into homes. The legislation passed Aug. 18, 2018, and was signed by Gov. Phil Murphy.
The city also passed legislation allowing them to go on private property without the homeowner’s permission. The “right of access” ordinance passed in September 2019. Adeem said this was critical because 70% of the properties are rentals.
“Sometimes there’s like five layers to get through to find the property owners,” and Adeem noted the owners might not give permission because of fear the city might find other violations.
Creating economic growth
Adeem and Di Ionna said the mayor wanted to ensure if the city was spending all this money, that a large portion of it would be returning to the city. According to Adeem, the mayor set up programs to get “mom-and-pop businesses in the city proper licenses to bid on government contracts,” which would allow them to bid on county and school projects, too.
In addition, the water department required contractors to hire Newark residents. He said 50 unemployed Newark residents were sent for apprenticeships and 35 were placed on the lead service line replacement project.
“Residents who live in the city got union-scale jobs,” Adeem said. “We used it as an economic engine, putting money back into the city. We had residents replacing their own lines or their neighbor’s lines.”
He said this was especially helpful when workers were going door-to-door because residents saw their neighbors or their nephews were working on the project.
“They see us out on the street, see us expediting the program and that we really cared — cared enough to the point of ensuring money was going back into the city; that we hired residents and helped them learn a trade.”
This also helped get Newark residents on board. “Residents rallied with us to get the lead service lines replaced,” Adeem said.
Adeem said Newark residents are 70% black and brown, and the mayor is investing in the community with the thought, “We’re no longer going to allow companies to take money out of our community.”
Adeem and Di Ionna talked about what the city did right and what it could’ve done better. Di Ionna said he thinks it goes back to an initial conversation between the mayor and Adeem when this first began. The mayor asked Adeem how the city could fix this, and Adeem said pull out the lead lines. The mayor asked how much would it cost, and Adeem replied probably $150 million.
“The mayor’s response was ‘Let’s figure out a way to do it.’ He didn’t want to kick the can down the road,” Di Ionna said.
Adeem said one thing the city did right was “we weren’t afraid to think outside the box. We gave out water filters almost immediately, (and) we tested the filters; no one’s ever thought of that. We gave out bottled water, we hired Newark residents; we got the money so we could accelerate the program.”
“Treat it like the public health emergency it is and fix it,” he added.
Di Ionna said, “The short answer to what the city did right was the will to get it done. We had the will to get legislation passed to use public funds on private property, we had the will to get legislation to allow us to go on private property, we had the will to take port authority money and throw it at this program, (and) we had the will to work with the county and state to get it done. The theme of this is ‘How do we get it done?’”
“And to get it done in the most economic, effective and efficient manner,” said Adeem. “For generations to come, kids in the city of Newark will not be affected by lead levels going into the water, and another mayor will not have to worry about it.”
As for what the city could’ve done better, Adeem said, “When we first started communicating with residents, we didn’t use social media to the level we should have and that we’re doing now.”
Officials followed regulations and sent out mailings, put notices on water bills, etc, but they realized state and federal guidelines could be enhanced through the addition of social media. People said the city was downplaying the issue because they weren’t on social media.
“When we improved communication by using Facebook, Instagram, etc. in 2018, we saw results — residents embraced us and came on board and pushed back against the NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council),” Adeem said, noting the NRDC had filed a lawsuit against the state and city “demanding” Newark do a variety of things it had already implemented before the lawsuit was filed.
Adeem also said the city could’ve been more aggressive about trying to get its side of the story out about what it was doing to correct the issue.
Newark officials advise municipalities not to wait. “Start having those conversations with your community now. Make sure you have an inventory of your lead service lines — don’t wait till the last minute,” Adeem advised. “Work on a strategy on how to replace the lead service lines effectively, economically and efficiently and move forward. Don’t sit on the sidelines. Have a plan in place — don’t kick the can down the road.”
Di Ionna said, “No city the size of Newark has done as many as we have as quickly at no cost to and no rate increase to residents. What we’ve done is pretty remarkable.”
Adeem said the city is getting calls from around the country and as far away as Germany asking how it accelerated the program.
Keeping the program free to homeowners is key. Adeem said when Newark first launched the program, it was charging $1,000, and only 750 lines were replaced in six months. Once the city made it free, workers replaced 1,200 in one month.
Adeem said the program has given city officials “a level of pride on a national level that you can create a jobs plan for every community if you upgrade the city’s infrastructure.”
He added, “The country needs to have a real conversation about the real cost of water.”