NEWARK, N.J. (CN) – After weeks of reports of Newark’s failure to cope with growing lead contamination in its drinking water, the city announced Monday a $120 million initiative to speed up efforts to replace old lead pipes.
The plan would replace all of the roughly 18,000 lead pipes in the city within two to three years, a much quicker timeline than the decade some had predicted the project would take to complete.
Essex County Executive Joe DiVicenzo said during a press conference Monday that the 10-year estimate for pipe replacement was too long and that a bevy of meetings between state and local officials last week prompted the new initiative.
“As an elected official, I don’t want to wait that long,” DiVicenzo said. “This challenge was too important to ignore.”
The Essex County Improvement Authority will issue a $120 million bond with the county’s guarantee, substantially increasing an existing state-subsidized $75 million bond. DiVicenzo said Newark’s AAA bond rating would allow it to pay the bond back at a reduced rate.
The city has replaced about 800 lead service lines so far this year.
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka said at the press conference that the additional funding would not require additional taxes or otherwise require affected homeowners to fork over any cash to have their service lines replaced. In the past, homeowners had to pay 10% of the cost of replacement up to a maximum of $1,000.
“It is critical that we create a permanent solution to modernize Newark’s infrastructure, and eliminate lead service lines to reduce the risk of lead in the water for all Newark families,” Baraka said. “Replacing the lead service lines is the only permanent way to address this issue.”
Lead in Newark’s drinking water from underground service lines was discovered in 2017. The contamination affected public schools in the city, which led to Newark shutting down drinking fountains in many educational facilities.
Lead service lines and lead fixtures, long used in many municipalities, are now prohibited.
The city has distributed more than 39,000 filters to residents since last fall, but sample testing in August revealed that two out of three filters did not reduce lead to levels below 15 parts per billion. The city is now conducting testing on 225 additional filters.
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said the additional testing is a precaution.
“The mayor, all of us, the county, the state, are acting in an abundance of caution,” Murphy said. “Until you have enough data points, there is no point opining on partial results.”
Baraka added it is not yet clear whether the city’s corrosion control efforts – such as the introduction of the food-grade additive orthophosphate into the water system – have had a positive effect.
Newark also handed out bottled water to roughly 15,000 of the city’s 95,000 households. However, some of the city’s 285,000 residents reported waiting in line in the hot summer heat for more than an hour to pick up their water allotments. The city will continue to provide bottled water to affected residences.
County freeholders and the Newark City Council will vote on the bond issue Tuesday.