On Monday (August 26), Newark Mayor Ras Baraka announced at a press conference that a new $120 million plan will enable the city to replace the 18,000 buried lead service lines in the next 24 to 30 months. The previous estimate was 10 years.
Replacement of the pipes is not just a financial burden for the city that is among the poorest in the nation, but a logistical one, too. The majority of Newark’s pipes are buried under residential property, meaning, writes The New York Times, “the city cannot act unilaterally to excavate them; residents need to request a replacement and then grant access to the city’s contractors. In Newark, where 70 percent of residents are renters, it can be difficult to track down landlords.”
Additionally, reports The Times:
The new round of financing, organized through Essex County, also removes any financial burden to homeowners for replacing the lead service lines in the city. Under the previous, $75 million plan that the city began in March, residents would have had to pay a maximum of $1,000 for the replacement work. This was seen as a financial blow in a city where the median income is $34,826 and nearly 30 percent of residents live below the poverty line.
Mr. Baraka said he was seeking to change that, working with state legislators to create a law or ordinance that would allow city contractors to work on private property and to fix lead service lines without permission.
For close to two decades, Newark officials have known that the city’s oldest pipes leached lead into water. In response, the chemical sodium silicate was added, effectively solving the problem until 2017 tests on residential water samples showed that the chemical had stopped working. Water filters were distributed to 40,000 residents in October, but in August, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sent a letter to Newark and New Jersey officials informing them that the filters were not keeping lead out of the tap water and that bottled water should be distributed instead.
Images of hundreds of Newark’s predominantly Black residents waiting in line in hot August weather to get bottled water has drawn comparisons to Flint, another majority Black city where decisions made by elected officials contributed to high levels of lead in residential tap water.
So far in 2019, 800 of Newark’s 18,000 lines have been replaced—meaning that more than 17,000 need to be replaced in the next 30 months. “I don’t know of any other city of this size that has tried to replace all their lead service lines in this kind of time frame,” Erik Olson, a senior director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told The Times.
“We are going to do this as swiftly as humanly possible,” Baraka reportedly said at Monday’s press conference.