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Newark Plans To Replace Thousands Of Water Lines In Response To Lead Crisis

Mayor Ras Baraka of Newark
Mayor Ras Baraka of Newark Photo Credit: City of Newark

The Essex County Improvement Authority is expected to issue $120 million in bonds to replace lead water lines serving most of the homes in Newark, sending an existing replacement program into overdrive in response to the city's ongoing water-quality crisis, officials said Monday in Newark. 

"We are going to do this as swiftly as possible," Mayor Ras Baraka said at a press conference alongside Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo and Gov. Phil Murphy. 

The deal is subject to approval by the Essex County Board of Chosen Freeholders, the ECIA and Newark's city council, all of which are meeting Tuesday to discuss the proposal. 

Belleville, Nutley and Bloomfield, which are also served by the same system, will also be eligible for the loan program, DiVincenzo's office said. 

The city had so far replaced less than 800 lead service lines, but the funding will pay for a total of 18,000 new lines, the plumbing that connects homes and businesses to the water system. Additional crews will be hired immediately to expedite a program that was originally expected to take up to 10 years to complete. 

Under the new timeline, the lines would be replaced within 30 months. 

DiVincenzo and Baraka also said Monday that they will seek funding from state and federal sources to pay back the bonds so the burden does not fall exclusively on taxpayers in Newark and the other affected communities.  

Elevated levels of lead were detected in the tap water of homes served by the Pequannock water system a few years ago, eventually prompting city officials to distribute water filters. The Pequannock system serves homes in all wards of the city but the East Ward, which is connected to a different system. 

Newark's lead crisis took on new urgency this summer when testing at three homes with filters revealed that levels of lead -- a dangerous contaminant especially harmful to vulnerable populations such as children and the elderly -- had not been brought below 15 parts per billion, considered a safe threshold.  The city began distributing bottled water in response. 

For several years the city had relied on a special chemical treatment to keep lead from the pipes from leaching into the water. But that treatment stopped working in 2016, apparently when the acidity of the water was increased to counteract the presence of carcinogens, The New York Times reported. 

The Times also reported that the Baraka administration initially downplayed the severity of the crisis, stating in a mailer sent to the public in early 2018 that the lead problem only affected older homes. 

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