Suburbs that buy water from Newark working to move past lead crisis

Posted Aug 01, 2020

Thanks to a combination of new treatment and aggressive infrastructure work, Newark has turned the corner in its battle against lead in drinking water. But three suburbs that buy their water from the city are still working to address the issue.

In July, Newark officially dipped below federal drinking standards for lead for the first time in three years. It was the culmination of an aggressive push by the city to remove thousands of lead lines from its system, and to revamp how water is treated at the beleaguered Pequannock treatment plant.

Bloomfield, Belleville and Nutley all purchase drinking water from Newark, without any additional treatment.

As Newark’s new corrosion control treatment continues to take effect, all three of the towns should see benefits. But without further action of their own, they’ll be left with little protection if Newark has problems again.

Bloomfield has launched its own lead service line replacement program, though on a much smaller scale compared to what is seen in Newark. Matt Watkins, Bloomfield’s township administrator, said his town has replaced 131 lead service lines as of Thursday.

Up to this point, Bloomfield has been replacing lead service lines as they are found through other work. On Monday, the town council approved a $295,000 contract for a company to investigate possible lead service lines at over 500 locations in Bloomfield. Any such lines that are found will be replaced through a separate contract, Watkins said.

That work appears to be paying off. Bloomfield met federal standards for lead in its drinking water in the first half of this year, and has not registered a lead exceedance since the first half of 2019.

Bloomfield is also continuing an effort to ween itself off of Newark water. The town plans to build new pump station that will allow Bloomfield to connect with the North Jersey District Water Supply Commission. Once that station is complete, Bloomfield will get more than half of its water from the NJDWSC’s Wanaque reservoir.

Initially, that Wanaque water will serve the northern portions of the town. Watkins said the town plans to eventually build new water mains to supply the Wanaque water to the rest of Bloomfield.

The interconnection project with the NJDWSC has been hampered by coronavirus-related delays, Watkins said. The timeline for the project is currently unclear.

In all, Watkins said that Bloomfield has spent $4.3 million on water system improvements since 2017. By the time ongoing and upcoming projects are completed, the town will have spent $10 million.

“Nothing has slowed us down, other than the obvious pandemic,” Watkins said. “Nothing has slowed us down on making improvements to the water system. We still think that’s essential.”

Belleville, which registered high lead levels for the third-consecutive monitoring period in the first half of this year, has a longer road ahead. The town is the only municipality that gets 100% of its drinking water from the Newark water department, Belleville Mayor Michael Melham previously told NJ Advance Media.

Still, Belleville has yet to break ground on lead service line replacements.

There are about 5,500 lead service lines served by the Belleville water department, according to recent public notices from the town. Melham has previously said the cost of replacing those pipes is estimated to be between to $35 million and $40 million.

Because Belleville has failed to meet lead standards, the town is required by federal regulations to replace at least 400 lead service lines. Melham said this initial group of replacements will serve as a sort of pilot program for the town, which plans to eventually replace all of its lead service lines.

Melham has been adamant that he doesn’t want to simply bond $40 million for lead service line replacements. He said he worries that’s too heavy a burden for Belleville’s budget, and he doesn’t think its fair to homeowners in his town who don’t have lead service lines.

“I’m not comfortable blanket burdening the entire township for the tune of $40 million,” Melham said.

Instead, Melham said Belleville will pay for the replacement work through smaller bonds taken out by Belleville’s water department, which the mayor said is capable of bonding independently of the town.

Those water department bonds would then be paid back by property owners who have their lead service lines replaced. The payment would be in the form of an additional fee on the homeowner’s quarterly water bill. Melham estimates that fee will be about $15 each quarter, and will take 20 years to pay off.

Melham noted that if a homeowner wants to sell their house but has a lead service line fee on the water account, the seller can either pay off the remainder of the balance outright or the buyer can agree to take on the quarterly charge.

“I think it’s a really smart, clever, fair way to do it,” Melham said of the funding scheme.

Melham said Belleville’s lead service line replacements will be done as streets in town are repaved, and could take between three and five years to complete all 5,500 replacements.

Bellleville has about 500 more lead service lines in the town’s Silver Lake neighborhood which are served by the Newark Water Department. The Brick City is replacing those lines; Melham said he expects Silver Lake to be free of lead service lines by the fall.

The issue in Nutley is on a much smaller scale. Newark serves water for just 436 homes in Nutley, according to the town’s website, all of which are near the town’s border with Bloomfield. It is unclear how many, if any, of those homes have lead service lines.

Nutley has not exceeded federal lead standards in the past year. Prior to that, the town test its water on a triennial basis.

Nutley Mayor Mauro Tucci did not respond to a request for comment from NJ Advance Media.

Newark’s work to replace about 18,000 lead service lines, at no cost to property owners, is largely funded by a $120 million bond program offered to the city by Essex County. Similar bond offers were extended to Bloomfield, Belleville and Nutley.

None of the three towns have accepted the offer, according to Anthony Puglisi, an Essex County spokesman. He added that the county’s offer remains on the table.

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