The staccato rhythms of a jackhammer ricocheted off buildings on a recent sun-drenched morning as a work crew dug into a Newark street to remove an ageing pipe that carried water — and potentially poison — to a small apartment building.
The new pipe is made of copper. The old one was lined with lead, which can be hazardous to human health even at low concentrations.
The water service line was one of over 20,000 made with the toxic metal that the city began replacing in 2019 in response to public outrage over revelations of high lead levels in tap water in schools and homes throughout the city. The replacement project, which was originally expected to take up to ten years, is nearly finished less than three years after it began.
During the crisis, city residents who switched to bottled water found it easier to breathe — and drink. Newark, which was once chastised and sued for its slow response to the problem, is now being held up as a potential national model.
The pipe replacement project has served as some sort of vindication for Mayor Ras Baraka, who faced mounting public pressure in 2018 after the Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group, sued, alleging that New Jersey’s largest city had failed to adequately monitor lead levels and had downplayed the problem to residents.
Deteriorating lead-lined pipes, some of which are over a century old, are a problem in many older American cities, with Benton Harbor, Michigan being a recent example. However, thanks to an infusion of state and local funds and an amendment to state law to protect homeowners from having to bear the cost, Newark’s replacement project moved ahead faster than expected.
The Natural Resources Defense Council praised Newark’s efforts, which resulted in the lawsuit being settled last January.
According to the NRDC, there are up to 12 million lead service lines in the United States. They discovered that nearly half of all states do not even track the number of lead lines within their borders. Lead in drinking water has been linked to developmental delays in children and has the potential to harm the brain, red blood cells, and kidneys.
The difficulty of removing lead from drinking water in the United States was brought to light by the Flint, Michigan, scandal, in which city officials switched water sources to save money in 2014. This resulted in criminal charges, many of which were later dropped, and a $641 million settlement for the residents of the impoverished, majority-Black city.
The $1 trillion infrastructure plan approved by the House on Friday night and now awaiting signature by President Joe Biden includes $15 billion for lead pipe replacement. Several hundred lead lines remain to be replaced in Newark, many of which are connected to buildings that were previously inaccessible.
According to Mark Wleklik, foreperson for Underground Utilities, a company that has done thousands of pipe replacements in Newark, the process can take up to five hours, though many replacements take less time because they involve smaller pipes that can be pulled out and replaced by making a smaller cut in the curbside.
According to Kareem Adeem, director of the city’s water and sewer department, more than 70% of Newark residents are renters, and many of the buildings are owned by limited-liability corporations based elsewhere that can be difficult to locate.
That led the Newark City Council to pass an ordinance allowing tenants to provide access to buildings. An amendment to a state law paved the way for public money to be used for the replacements — which can cost thousands of dollars per home — and Newark was able to borrow $120 million. All of these efforts enabled the city of over 310,000 people to increase line replacements to as many as 120 per day.
Some people believe that praise for Newark’s accomplishments should be taken in context. Yvette Jordan, a teacher and chairperson of the Newark Education Workers Caucus, which joined the resources council’s lawsuit, said it was no coincidence that many of the city’s actions occurred while Baraka was running for reelection and Newark was in the running to host Amazon’s second headquarters.