The state ignores my town, so I’m taking out a billboard about it, N.J. mayor says

Updated Sep 25, 2019

Frustrated by what he says is a lack of attention from the state, Belleville Mayor Michael Melham is taking some unique steps to spotlight its own lead problems.

On Thursday, Melham will unveil a digital billboard and media campaign calling on the state to provide water filters and filter cartridges for the nearly 6,000 homes in the township with lead service lines. The highlight will be a billboard on Route 21 in Belleville, but the campaign will also include a dedicated website and social media push.

The billboard will ask people to sign an online petition at FiltersforBelleville.org — a website that will be operational by Thursday.

Belleville is one of several towns that receives its water from Newark’s system and is impacted by the ongoing lead crisis there. All of Bellville’s nearly 40,000 residents get their water from Newark’s Pequannock treatment plant, according to the mayor.

Melham said the ad campaign is needed because his town is “completely left out of the mix” in the discussion surrounding the problems with Newark’s water system.

Water filters, which are nationally certified to remove lead from water after it comes from the tap, are a temporary solution to the lead problem.

Newark and nearby Bloomfield, which also relies on Newark water, have both paid for their own filter handout programs. But Melham said that Belleville cannot afford such a cost, which he estimates will come out to $450,000.

“We don’t have it," Melham said. "We didn’t expect this. We didn’t budget for it.”

The budget for the ad campaign, meanwhile, will be $0, Melham said, as the web design company he owns, AlphaDog Solutions, will create the website and social campaign for free, and the billboard allows the town to post public service announcements at no charge.

Melham criticized the state Department of Environmental Protection for not offering the same help it’s giving Newark to Belleville.

The mayor took particular issue with a program the DEP announced Monday, a $1 million partnership with Newark to create a community assistance program aimed at addressing water concerns among the city’s residents.

“I’ve been yelling and screaming that I need filters," Melham said. "Meanwhile, the state is going to spend $1 million on a marketing campaign in Newark to teach residents how to use their filters.”

Shawn LaTourette, the DEP Chief of Staff, noted that the community program in Newark will not pay for filters, which is what Melham is asking for in Bellville, and is not a grant program, but one that will pay to train volunteers and provide educational materials on the correct use of filters.

He disputed Melham’s claims that the state has been ignoring Belleville.

“The DEP has offered and will continue to offer Belleville’s Water Department technical assistance. However, the DEP does not provide water systems with filters,” LaTourrette said.

“Water systems may make an individual choice to issue filters to their customers in response to lead action level exceedances. The DEP supports local decisions to issue filters and will provide technical assistance in those instances as well, just as DEP has done in Newark where that city made the independent choice to procure and issue filters to Newark residents.”

Lead service lines are at the heart of the water crisis that has gripped Newark, after a failure of corrosion control treatment at the city’s Pequannock treatment plant caused the water to eat away at the decades-old pipes, which connect individual properties to water mains. That corrosion causes the lead to flake off of the pipes and into the water just before the tap.

While Newark has adjusted its corrosion control, replacing the lead service lines, an expensive and time consuming process, is the long term fix to the lead issues.

Newark is set to receive $120 million in funds through a county bond program to replace all of its lead service lines over the next three years. The county has extended the terms of that loan to the other municipalities that receive Newark water, including Belleville.

At a press conference Monday, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka said the city would use part of its loan to pay for replacements of the lead service lines it owns in Belleville and Hillside.

According to data provided by the DEP, just 495 of Belleville’s 6,000 lead service lines are connected directly to Newark’s distribution system. All of those lines are in the town’s Silver Lake neighborhood, which used to be a part of Newark.

Replacing all the lines in Belleville, Melham estimates, would cost $24 million.

His town will have a difficult time taking on a loan of that size, even with the same terms the county offered to Newark, Melham said.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity and we’ll be looking to participate, but we can’t be as aggressive as Newark has,” Melham said.

Only about 60 homes in Hillside are served by Newark water, according to Mayor Dahlia Vertreese. The rest of the Union County township is served by New Jersey American Water.

“It was definitely something that was appreciated. He could’ve said no,” Vertreese said of Baraka’s offer to replace those lines. “The fact that he is extending that olive branch to his customers is awesome.”

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