As N.J. city battles coronavirus, it’s still fixing last year’s lead crisis

Posted May 22, 2020

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, Newark is continuing its aggressive plan to replace the thousands of lead pipes that helped prompt a crisis in the city that garnered national attention and concern last summer.

As of Thursday, Newark has replaced 10,862 lead service lines — the garden-hose sized pipes connecting individual properties to water mains. That’s over half of the 18,000 total lines that the city plans to replace, work that city officials expect will address the lead problem.

The city’s water department first exceeded the federal lead standards for water in the first half of 2017. The water system was found to have high lead levels through the second half of 2019, marking six consecutive six-month monitoring periods with elevated lead levels.

The current six-month monitoring period began in January and runs through the end of June. Kareem Adeem, the director of Newark’s water department, said the city expects to meet the lead standard this period.

Warm winter weather meant that crews were able to work throughout the typically cold season, said city spokesman Mark Di Ionno, who added that the city still expects to complete all the replacements within the original 24 to 30 month timeframe.

“The pace is really kind of amazing,” Di Ionno said.

Newark’s line replacement work began slowly in March 2019, with a $12 million loan from the state. The work got a significant boost in August — after concerns over the effectiveness of water filters prompted the city to hand out bottled water — when Essex County announced a $120 million bond program to speed up the replacements.

Catherine McCabe, the commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, applauded Newark’s lead line replacements in a statement to NJ Advance Media.

"Our state, like many others, has considerable water infrastructure challenges and we are proud to work with our partner cities and water systems to take those challenges head-on,” McCabe said.

Community in need

Community activist Sabre Bee is skeptical.

Bee is a co-founder of the Newark Water Coalition, the group that led a protest through downtown Newark as the city hosted MTV’s Video Music Awards in August. She said the conversations she has with other city residents and the constant demand for her group’s services make it clear that public trust in Newark’s water quality, particularly among younger residents, has yet to return.

“That’s what it feels like, that’s the temperature of the city and that’s what I believe,” Bee said.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the Newark Water Coalition spent about a year distributing bottled water and water filters to community members. Now, Bee said, the group continues its work with about 10 volunteers bringing the water and filters directly to those who ask for their help. Some days, Bee said, the group gets 30 requests for water deliveries.

According to the city’s website, Newark has passed out more than 40,000 water filters since October 2018. It was concerns about those city filters that spurred the EPA to call for bottled water handouts in August, but subsequent testing of the filters found them to be 99% effective in November. The city hasn’t handed out bottled water since October, after distributing more than 123,000 cases in roughly two months.

Since COVID-19′s rise, the city has been delivering water filters and replacement cartridges directly to residents on an appointment basis. Di Ionno said the city has distributed about 225 filter cartridges since the pandemic began.

Bee acknowledges that the city’s aggressive push to replace lead service lines is a progressive measure. But she said that doesn’t matter much if, like in her home, lead can still leach into the water from indoor plumbing fixtures.

“I could have lead pipes and the lead would not leak into my water if the water that was getting into my house was treated properly,” Bee said.

An NJ Advance Media investigation, published last December, found that Newark’s attempts to meet a different federal standard caused the city’s water to become more corrosive. It was this change in water quality, combined with the plethora of lead service lines in the city system, that caused the water crisis. Newark began a new corrosion control treatment last May meant to address the water’s corrosive nature. Officials cautioned at the time that the new treatment could take up to a year to become effective.

Meanwhile, the coronavirus could be putting kids in Newark and cities across New Jersey at higher risk of lead exposure, some experts fear.

With schools closed, playgrounds locked up and community activities like sports leagues and church youth groups on hold from gathering, children are largely stuck at home. If that home has a lingering source of lead, the child inside of it has a higher risk of exposure than ever, according to Peter Chen, a policy counsel for Advocates for Children of New Jersey.

"If there are home based lead exposures, whether it’s paint, whether it’s water, whether it’s something else in the home, those risks are elevated,” Chen said.

Dr. Diane Calello, the executive director of the New Jersey Poison Center, said she shared Chen’s worry that kids stuck at home are at higher risk of lead exposure. But she stressed that the main sources of lead that parents should be concerned about are old lead paint and lead dust.

After the pandemic is over, there may not be a complete picture of how COVID-19 affected childhood lead exposure in New Jersey.

Under state law, children are required to have their blood tested for lead multiple times before age six. But enforcing that testing rule is difficult in normal circumstances. Now, Chen said it’s likely that parents will put off having their children tested out of fear of being exposed to the coronavirus at a doctor’s office or hospital.

"I think there’s a real concern that kids are not going to be tested for blood lead levels because they’re not going to go to hospitals,” Chen said.

Calello echoed those concerns about lead testing, and said that applied to vaccines and other preventative health measures as well.

“It’s important that if people have emergent health concerns, they not stay home because of COVID-19,” Calello said.

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