As Newark rids city of lead pipes, suburbs are struggling to do the same

Posted Jan 17, 2020

After high lead levels and fears of faulty filters thrust New Jersey’s largest city into the national spotlight last year, city and county officials hatched a sweeping plan to replace thousands of problematic lead pipes in Newark’s water system.

But in two nearby suburbs that buy their water from Newark, work to deal with the lead is moving more slowly.

The Brick City, fueled by a $120 million county bond, has so far replaced 5,076 of its 18,000 lead service lines, and expects to replace all of the lead lines within 24 to 30 months. The garden-hose sized pipes, which connect individual properties to the water main, are the decades-old plumbing at the heart of the city’s water crisis.

Meanwhile, lead service line replacements have been done in a limited scope in Bloomfield, and not yet at all in Belleville.

In Bloomfield, crews have been checking individual properties for lead lines as they work on a separate project to replace water meters throughout the town. Once a lead line is identified, it is replaced. That replacement is usually done within a week of the lead line being found, according to township spokesman Dan Knitzer.

“Pretty much as soon as they’re discovered, they’re fixed,” Knitzer said.

Bloomfield replaced 120 lead service lines in 2019, according to Knitzer, who added that the town has been doing the replacements for years but has emphasized the work recently.

“Since the lead exceedances, we have been more aggressive in finding and removing lead service lines,” Knitzer said.

Knitzer said Bloomfield is not sure how many lead service lines remain its water system, or how much it will cost to replacing all of those lines. It’s “a high priority” for the town’s officials, he said, though he added that there is currently no timeline for reaching that goal.

Bloomfield’s lead service line replacement work is currently being funded by a $1 million loan from the state infrastructure bank. Over the past four years, the town has spent $10 million on general water infrastructure improvements, Knitzer said. That includes ongoing work to give Bloomfield more connections with the North Jersey District Water Supply Commission, in order to lessen the town’s reliance on Newark water in the future.

Belleville has not yet replaced any lead service lines, but the town is working on finding funding for the work, Mayor Michael Melham said. He added that there are about 6,000 lead service lines in Belleville, and that replacing all of them is estimated to cost between $30 million and $35 million.

Melham said he expected Belleville would announce a lead service line replacement program “in the coming months.”

Some work has been done in Belleville’s Silver Lake neighborhood, where the water infrastructure is still owned by the Newark Water Department. There are more than 500 lead service lines owned by Newark in the neighborhood, and the city has so far replaced 10 of them, according to Newark spokesman Mark Di Ionno. The rest of the work in the neighborhood will begin once a new contract is approved, Di Ionno added.

It was an Essex County bond program that kicked Newark’s lead service line replacement work into high gear, and the county has offered the same deal to both Bloomfield and Belleville. So far, neither town has taken the county’s offer, according to county spokesman Anthony Puglisi.

In the meantime, both towns offer some sort of filter distribution program for concerned residents.

Bloomfield has spent nearly $60,000 and handed out more than 3,000 water filters or pitchers to residents, Knitzer said.

On Friday, Melham is scheduled to hold an event marking the start of filter distribution to about 900 Belleville residents.

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, who is scheduled to join Melham on Friday, sent Belleville $50,000 to buy filters and replacement filter cartridges for handout. The money sent by Newark was from previous donations sent to the Brick City, Di Ionno said.

Belleville received another $20,000 for its filter program from Clara Maass Medical Center.

No amount of lead is safe, but federal regulators have set a lead action level of 15 parts per billion.

Bloomfield reported high lead levels for three consecutive monitoring periods, from the start of 2018 through the end of June 2019, but met the federal lead standard during the second half of 2019, according to state records.

Belleville did not test for lead during 2018, according to state records, but found high lead levels in its water during the first half of 2019. Belleville’s test results for the second half of 2019 have not yet been reported to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection; Belleville Mayor Michael Melham said he hoped the town would send its results to the state this week.

Lead levels in Newark are still high — the city just exceeded the federal limit for the sixth consecutive six-month monitoring period — but those levels are beginning to drop as more lead lines are removed and a new water treatment technique takes effect.

Last year, Melham made a splash when he put a message on a billboard over Route 21 calling on the state to send money to Belleville to help fund filter handouts. The state has steadfastly refused to do so, but Melham said he thinks the billboard has at least gotten attention for his town.

“Did we get any money from the state? No. Did we get any filters from the state? No,” Melham said. "But did it create a dialogue between myself and the governor’s office? Certainly. So I would say the reviews have been mixed.”

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