HEALTH

Officials announce $120M deal to speed up replacement of Newark’s lead service lines

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

A new plan emerged Monday that would pump $120 million into the permanent solution for Newark’s water crisis, fast-tracking the replacement of old lead service pipes.

Under the plan unveiled by Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, the city would tap a loan backed by the county, providing additional funding to replace service lines to 18,000 homes in the city – which have been identified as the source of toxic lead leaching into drinking water.

The extra capital would cut years off the time needed to make the fix, from a decade to 24 to 36 months. It will also make it no longer necessary for residents to pay part of the cost of the new pipes leading to their homes.

“This challenge was too important to ignore. And I am happy that Essex is able to help,” said DiVincenzo, who was joined by Gov. Phil Murphy and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka in Newark for the announcement. “Because of our fiscal health, we are able to borrow money at a significant lower rate that will save Newark upwards up to $15 to $20 million in interest over the life of the bond. We are pleased to pass along these significant financial savings into Newark.”

“We all know that we have to work faster and harder and together, importantly, to restore residents’ trust in their water,” Murphy said. “Doing so will require a broad cooperation at all levels, to find solutions.”

Thousands of residents of the state’s largest city have been drinking bottled water for two weeks, after federal officials said tests showed lead levels that remained elevated despite tap filters provided by the city to residents with known contamination. As testing is expanded to more homes, frustrated and angry residents have demanded quick action on a permanent solution.

Acidic water from Newark’s Pequannock water-treatment plant caused lead to corrode out of the service lines leading to homes. Newark has already replaced 770 of the lines — using $75 million it agreed to borrow from the state. But at that level of funding, the job will take a decade, and Newark was also going to charge residents up to $1,000 per home.

“Some of the people on my block said, ‘No, I can’t afford the $1,000,’” said Deborah Smith-Gregory, president of the NAACP-Newark. “So they did not sign up to get their pipes replaced. So now, this takes away that doubt about, ‘Oh, I can’t do it because I can’t afford to do it.’”

Advocates said getting more residents to sign up can also help the city get a better idea of how many lines need to be replaced.

“We also need to know where the lead lines are,” said Dimple Chaudhary, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which is suing the city over its response to the water crisis. “The city needs to have comprehensive info on where they are. 18,000 is a soft number. We need to be assured, the city needs to create an accurate inventory.”

Bloomfield, Belleville and Nutley also buy drinking water from Newark’s Pequannock plant — and Essex County has offered those towns separate loans under the same terms as Newark. Officials in Bloomfield and Nutley are working on cost analyses.

In Belleville, officials have priced the replacement of lead service lines there at $24 million. Mayor Michael Melham thanked the county for its offer, but noted some lingering frustration over how the water crisis has been handled.

“Belleville residents drink the same exact water, which travels through a virtually identical infrastructure,” Melham said. “In the future, if you are going to mandate filters, bottled water and testing, Belleville must be included.”

The proposal will be reviewed tomorrow by the Newark City Council, the Essex County Board of Freeholders and the county Improvement Authority, which would issue the bonds. If all goes smoothly, that money could start flowing to Newark by the end of October.

The loan would cost Newark more than $6 million a year over 30 years.

“Borrowing money is never a perfect situation,” said Smith-Gregory. “But that’s what needs to happen so we can aggressively get them all done at the same time.”

Meanwhile, questions continued to swirl Monday over the distribution of bottled water. City officials have said the water is intended for those residents served by the Pequannock system.

In its lawsuit, the National Resources Defense Council is demanding that Newark supply bottled drinking water to all its residents, including those served by the Wanaque system.

Baraka said Monday that it was already doing so.

“Anybody that comes to any of our sites, we give them bottled water. Anybody,” the mayor said. “And then we go back and verify, talk to them and let them know if they have a lead service line or not. We give it to anybody and everybody.”

At least one resident disputed that claim.

“That’s not true. They still turned people away yesterday,” said Donna Jackson, who’s been a harsh critic of Baraka over the water crisis. “They’re not taking waters to the senior buildings. They’re not taking water to the pre-schools.”