Mayor Baraka: Newark rescued itself from its water crisis | Opinion

Posted Jan 30, 2021


The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) recently insinuated that their lawsuit with other citizen groups had “secured” safe drinking water for the residents of Newark and calls the settlement of the suit an “extraordinary victory” for the future children of Newark. They promise that the council, and their co-plaintiff, Newark Education Workers Caucus or NEW Caucus, “will monitor implementation of the settlement.”

This language implies that their lawsuit has been the driver of our diligent efforts to eradicate lead from our drinking water and to keep our residents educated and safe.

This goes beyond disingenuous. It continues to promulgate the false narrative that the NRDC and NEW Caucus rescued Newark residents from a government incapable of solving its own problem.

It also ignores the $200 million my administration has spent on new filtration and water quality technology and upgrades to our water treatment plant and delivery infrastructure – and that does not include the $190 million we are spending to replace lead service lines.

So it is imperative for me to list the conditions of the settlement and to tell the truth about what Newark has done, has always done, and continues to do.

The first condition says Newark “must” replace all our lead service lines … at no direct cost to residents. The settlement was agreed upon last week, around the same time we hit the 17,000 mark of the 18,720-plus lines we have replaced for free.

Clearly, this settlement is not a new demand. We did not undertake this massive infrastructure program under the threat of a lawsuit. We did it on our own accord, with largely our own financing.

The second condition says the city “must” provide free testing for lead in water and free water filters and cartridges. We began that immediately, going above and beyond federal and state guidelines after USEPA tests revealed that our corrosion control system had faltered in 2018. Also, the city has done free water testing for decades and will continue this practice.

The third condition is about continuing education and proper filter installation, which we have done through public meetings, social media and home visits, even during COVID-19. We have worked with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, followed their guidance, regulation requirements and enhanced their programs with our own.

The other stipulations follow suit. There is nothing being “demanded” in this settlement that we aren’t already doing, and I resent the implication that we needed the NRDC and NEW Caucus to push us in this direction.

Perhaps this is an appropriate time to recap the things the City of Newark had to do — with no help from the NRDC or the NEW Caucus — to be this close to full lead line replacement in just two years, which our research shows is unprecedented in the nation.

We are confident that no city has replaced that many lines as quickly and at no cost to residents, in either capital outlay, increased taxes or water rate hikes, which is key because it ensures all our residents will benefit, not just those who can afford it. As a measure of this accomplishment, consider that the Environmental Protection Agency guidelines announced in December ask communities to replace these lines over a 33-year period.

There are several compelling reasons why we were able to accomplish this:

  • The leadership of the Department of Water and Sewer Utilities Director Kareem Adeem, who took over after the sudden death of former Director Andrea Hall Adebowale just as we were investigating the reasons for our problem.
  • Since lead service lines are the property of the homeowner, we had to work with our state legislature, which allowed us to use public funds on private property for the purpose of replacing lead service lines.
  • Since 74% of Newark residents rent, we had to pass a city ordinance to allow us to replace lead service lines without the homeowner’s permission because tracking down landlords would have slowed the process and left some homes undone.
  • Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo’s willingness to use the county’s Aaa bond rating for the city to comfortably secure a $120 million bond, allowing us to accelerate the work in a way that sets national precedents.
  • The cooperation of our residents, through the early days of the problem, with helping us identify and locate lead service lines, to making sure construction workers had enough PPE to continue working through the COVID-19 crisis with barely an interruption, was enormously helpful and, I believe based on their pride in the city.
  • Finally, the collective will of the government and residents alike to get this done.

This final point is the true story of what happened in Newark. We proved the eradication of lead from drinking water does not have to be an ongoing infrastructure nightmare, nor does it have to be forced through lawsuits. To suggest otherwise denigrates the people of this city.

Through this entire ordeal, we proved ourselves as truly a “model city” in correcting a problem that impacts millions of Americans in cities, suburbs and rural places.

I say, prayerfully and sincerely, that I hope we can someday actually sit and meet with the NRDC and other groups to plot definitive and workable programs for lead eradication, without media grandstanding, lawsuits or other self-aggrandizing practices that only distract us from the common goal of providing the safest water possible for everyone.

Ras J. Baraka is the mayor of the city of Newark.

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-01-31 02:47:02 -0800