By Bradford Mason
A proposed settlement agreement submitted to a federal court secures safe drinking water protections from lead contamination.
The proposed settlement, made possible by the City of Newark’s significant progress in removing its lead pipes, requires the City to finish replacing the pipes and ensure critical health protections for residents. The citizen suit was brought by the Newark Education Workers (NEW) Caucus and NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), to combat high lead levels leaching into drinking water, and violations of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. There is no safe level of exposure to lead.
“Lead damages children’s brains, which is why our group of public school teachers brought this case to secure safe drinking water for families in Newark,” said Yvette Jordan, chair of the NEW Caucus. “Thankfully, our actions worked. Newark has come a long way to provide a brighter future for its children, and this settlement will ensure the job is finished,” added Jordan.
“NEW Caucus and other residents stood up to fight for safe drinking water in Newark, securing an extraordinary victory for generations of kids who will live healthier, better lives because they won’t be drinking leaded tap water,” said Erik D. Olson, NRDC’s Senior Strategic Director for Health. “Newark’s aggressive lead service line replacement program, at no direct cost to residents, could serve as a model for the nation once it is completed.”
While considerable progress has been made, it is critical for residents eligible for water filters to continue using them, and to make sure to replace expired water filter cartridges.
The proposed agreement would require the City of Newark to continue its rapid pace of fully replacing lead service lines from the water main pipe to people’s homes, at no direct cost to them. No partial pipe replacements are permitted under the agreement. The City initiated a lead service line replacement program in March 2019 and expects to complete replacement of an estimated 18,000 pipes by early spring 2021.
The proposed agreement also requires Newark to continue to provide free water testing to residents, as well as free filters and replacement cartridges to eligible residents. Newark must engage in extensive public education to emphasize to residents the importance of replacing filter cartridges because of the health risks of using expired cartridges.
NEW Caucus and NRDC filed the lawsuit against the City of Newark and New Jersey state officials in June 2018. No money damages were sought—just a solution to the lead contamination of Newark’s drinking water.
Meanwhile, Newark Mayor Ras J. Baraka recently announced that Newark’s Lead Service Line Replacement (LSLR) Program has surpassed the 17,000 mark on its way to replacing all 18,720-plus lines in the City.
“We have been committed to ever-improving the quality of our drinking water, including investing nearly $200 million in upgrades to our treatment facilities and infrastructure from the very beginning of my administration,” Baraka said. “This latest milestone is exactly that; another important marker in our history of commitment to make Newark tap water the best in the country.”
The Mayor said he took exception to the recent press release by the National Resources Defense Council about a settlement over the suit they filed against the City in 2017.
“All the things they’re listing in the suit that we must do, we are already doing,” Baraka said. “For instance, it says we must replace all lead lines as part of the settlement. The settlement was released two days ago, and we’ve done 17,000. Clearly, we are not working at their beck and call, but at our own.”
When the City completes the program in the coming weeks, it will be able to claim that no city in America has eradicated such a volume of lead lines as quickly and mostly through its own financing, with no cost to residents in either capital outlay, tax increases or water rate hikes.
The lead service line replacement program has been led by the Department of Water and Sewer Utilities Director Kareem Adeem, who said the cooperation and patience of the residents has contributed much to the program’s success.
“We can’t thank the residents enough,” Adeem said. “They’ve been willing to help us identify lines, give us access to their homes and apartments, and even during COVID-19 were making sure our construction crew were well-stocked with PPE so they could continue working through the pandemic.”
Other parts of the NRDC’s press release address “demands” for free bottled water, free water testing, continued education of residents about lead and the use of filters, and the public posting of data.
“I resent the implication that we had to be pushed into doing all that,” Mayor Baraka said. “For instance, the City has been testing water for free for decades. From the very beginning of trace lead found in several residential homes, we have dutifully informed, educated and looked out for the best interests of our residents without being threatened by lawsuits or protests. For others to insinuate otherwise is disingenuous.”
“City employees and volunteers were going door-to-door, block by block in every aspect of this process, from the very start, whether it was ensuring vulnerable residents had clean water, or doing filter education and installment, or logging all 18,720-plus lead lines,” Baraka said.
When trace levels of lead were discovered in several private homes in 2017, the City immediately notified the affected residents and began an exhaustive search to find out why they were experiencing the first lead exceedances in private homes in 25 years.
The first lines in the City were replaced beginning two years ago with a $75 million City bond, and an Essex County bond of $120 million in the fall of 2019 allowed the City to accelerate the work.