April 17, 2021
NEWARK, NEW JERSEY
F.OR TWO years the streets of Newark were a mess. The residents endured road closures and loud noise. New Jersey’s largest city has replaced 18,500 dangerous lead supply lines, more than half of all homes that connect homes to the main water supply. The exchange is almost complete. The speed is remarkable: government guidelines until recently gave American cities up to 33 years to replace lead pipelines. But Newark couldn’t afford to wait.
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Lead is highly toxic and can cause a variety of health problems, including heart disease and infertility. It damages children’s developing brains and increases the risk of cognitive and behavioral problems. New Jersey called for larger water supplies to step up testing following the Flint, Michigan water crisis. The water was improperly treated and exposed to lead.
The lead levels in Newark were shockingly high. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental group, and NEW Caucus, made up of Newark teachers, sued the city and state in 2018 for failing to act quickly and for violating federal safe drinking water law. By the summer of 2019, thousands of residents were told not to drink the tap water.
All 50 states have lead pipes. Up to 10 million households rely on them when they are connected to the main water supply. New lead pipes were only banned at the federal level in 1986. Newark did this in 1953.
Old towns tend to be particularly plagued by pipes, some of which date back a century and have not been maintained (see map). Chicago has more lead water pipes than any other American city; it is replacing them at a snail-like pace of less than 800 per year. In Milwaukee, exchanges at the current rate will take decades. Buffalo has about 160 km of lead pipes that provide water to residents. It replaced 400 lines in the past year. Madison was ahead of the curve. It started removing its lead pipes in 2001 and took over a decade to complete.
Replacing lead for copper tubing is expensive: replacing a tube can cost anywhere from $ 5,000 to $ 11,000. Joe Biden’s “American Jobs Plan,” released last month, should help. He calls for a $ 111 billion water infrastructure and $ 45 billion for the removal of all lead pipes and utilities.
Erik Olson of NRDC, who highlighted Newark’s key problems in a 2003 report, now says Newark could be a model for other cities. “We had our problems with the city,” he says, “but they turned things around.” The NRDC and NEW Caucus settled their lawsuit with Newark in January. But most cities argue about cost and access.
Ras Baraka, Newark’s mayor, wanted to act quickly but had no money. Joe DiVincenzo, the district manager for the surrounding Essex County, offered his help. He used the county’s triple-A rating to raise $ 120 million.
The city’s water department and its subcontractors soon covered Newark. A city ordinance allowed workers to replace pipes without permission from homeowners. (Three-quarters of Newark residents live in rented rooms, and tracking down landlords would have stopped things.) Kareem Adeem, the water manager, says the project would have been even faster without covid-19. Not only was it done at high speed, but it was done at a low cost – roughly $ 7,000 per line.
Yvette Jordan, a teacher who was part of the NRDC lawsuit, praises the city for its speed, but she says that if Newark residents hadn’t protested and they didn’t file a lawsuit, Mr. Baraka would not have acted like him. Many residents still do not trust what comes out of their faucets and still buy bottled water to drink and brush their teeth. Others go to Water Boxes, filter machines operated by the Newark Water Coalition, an activist group, to ensure their weekly supplies. Mr Baraka says, “You don’t have to take the mayor’s word for it. Just try it for free and you will know. ” ■
This article appeared in the United States section of the print version under the heading “Nice Job, Newark.”