Newark is a ‘model city’ when it comes to replacing lead water lines | Opinion

Published: Feb. 10, 2022

By Ras J. Baraka

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka says although millions still face issues of lead water lines in U.S. cities, Newark is not one on those places as it recently completed an unprecedented, Herculean task of replacing all the city’s 24,000 lead service lines in less than three years. No other city has replaced as many lines as fast.

After decades of disinvestment to rid the nation’s drinking water of harmful trace lead levels, President Joe Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris have made a top priority of eliminating the source of the danger with their Lead Pipe and Paint Action Plan, which will offer billions of dollars in federal funds and support to remove all lead pipes and lead service lines in the next decade.

The problem, like many health issues, disproportionately affects Black and brown people in cities across America but is indiscriminately found in suburbs and rural communities alike and is, therefore, a crisis of significant magnitude. About 10 million American homes connect to water mains with lead service lines and the federal government also estimates 400,000 schools and childcare facilities also face exposure to lead in their water.

I’m proud to say Newark is no longer one of those places as we recently completed an unprecedented, Herculean task of replacing all the city’s 24,000 lead service lines in less than three years. No other city has replaced as many lines as fast and we are being touted as the “model city” for lead line abatement.

As such, we have learned some useful lessons for the most efficient use of funds, material and manpower and I would like to share them with other leaders who now can get federal backing to replace lead service lines.

1. The political will to get it done. Federal funding is available, but it will take the cooperation of state, county and local governments, residents, and contractors and unions to pave the way for any program’s success.

2. Since lead service lines are the property of homeowners in most cases, the New Jersey State Legislature passed a bill to allow Newark to use public funds on private property for the purpose of replacing lead service lines. This allowed us to offer lead service line replacement to our residents for free. We also had the City file permits for homeowners, waived fees and did free final inspections. This eliminated any excuse for homeowners to resist lead line replacement.

3. Most critically, Newark passed a city ordinance to allow the replacement of lead service lines without the homeowner’s permission. Nearly 75% of our residents rent and tracking down landlords to gain entry would have slowed the process and left some homes undone. With access no longer an issue, we could advance replacing every line, block by block. This approach saw us repairing as many as 120 lines a day as 20 crews worked around the city.

4. Resident education and involvement were also important for our people to grasp the enormity and importance of the problem and the project to fix it. In Newark, we were relentless with our community meetings, mailers and robocalls, door-to-door education on the interim use of filters and sign-ups for lead service line replacement.

5. We Invested in the community by creating an internship program through contractors to train our residents for the high-paying, union construction jobs the project created and demanded contractors use Newark businesses for inspections, supplies and other job-related support. This built trust in our government’s program as residents not only got to see the work being done before their eyes but knew people employed through the project.

6. Newark has one of the oldest free testing and remediation programs in the country for lead paint and dust, as well as water, dating back to the 1960s. Our lead pipe replacement program gave us an opportunity to highlight these programs and increase resident participation.

The Biden-Harris Lead Pipe and Paint Action Plan includes 15 new initiatives by 10 federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Education Department and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Department of Labor.

The EPA is allocating $3 billion in 2022 alone to speed lead service line replacement, especially in underserved communities. There may also be provisions to use funds from the $350 billion Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund provided in the American Rescue Plan for lead service line removal and lead faucet and fixture replacement.

In the past, states and cities for a myriad of reasons could not undertake lead service line removal. Three years ago in Newark, we found ways to finance our project and get it done, once and for all. The new Biden-Harris action now clears the financial hurdle. The rest is now up to good local leadership and cooperation.

Ras Baraka is the mayor of the City of Newark.

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published this page in News and Politics 2022-02-11 03:27:06 -0800