Newark schools get $7.5M grant to clean up lead in drinking water

Posted Oct 23, 2020

Newark public schools will receive $7.5 million in federal grant money to continue cleaning up lead in the drinking water for the city’s 64 schools, officials announced Friday morning.

In a press conference at Lafayette Street School -- an elementary building that was constructed in 1848 and chosen to host the announcement because of its aging infrastructure -- EPA officials and Newark Mayor Ras J. Baraka announced the multi-million dollar grant that would help to remove and replace sources of lead in drinking water in the city’s schools. The schools have been undergoing remediation for lead in the buildings' drinking water since elevated lead levels were first detected in 2016.

Accompanying Baraka at the announcement were EPA regional administrator Peter Lopez, the EPA’s office of water senior policy counsel Jessica Kramer, director of Newark’s Department of Water and Sewer Kareem Adeem, Newark public school superintendent Roger Leon and other state, city and school officials.

The funding for the grant is derived from the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act (WIIN Act), which is meant to address and improve the country’s water infrastructure, an EPA spokesperson said. The EPA announced $39.9 million in grant funding, with New Jersey’s largest city being one of the first recipients of the grants.

“Now we get infrastructure money to work on our school system so that people can do what’s necessary to change the infrastructure here in the schools, to make our parents feel comfortable sending their kids to school whenever we get back there,” said Baraka.

The grant is meant to bolster work that has already started to combat lead in Newark’s schools, sparked by the announcement four years ago that 30 school buildings had elevated levels of lead in their drinking water. The funding has not yet been awarded, but the EPA expects to make a formal grant award in early 2021, an EPA spokesperson said.

In March 2016, officials immediately shut off all drinking fountains at the affected schools. The lead levels detected at the school buildings exceeded 15 parts per billion, a metric implemented by the EPA’s lead and copper rule.

Exposure to lead is particularly dangerous for young children. Lead can seep into children’s bones and cause damage to their brains and nervous systems, slowing growth and development and causing learning, behavior, hearing and speech problems, according to the CDC.

Lead has not been found in the water supply itself, but seeped in from lead in old plumbing, fixtures, and piping.

Aggressive work on Newark schools' water systems have improved the water quality, with all of the schools’ drinking water under the 15 parts per billion mark as of Friday, according to Steven Morlino, executive director of facilities management for the city’s public schools. The district initially shut off 400 fountains, but as of Friday, fewer than 100 were shut off, he said.

The federal grant will allow the school district to continue remediation that includes ripping up walls in schools that are often lined with asbestos and replacing aging water fountains and lead pipes in the schools' foundations, said Morlino.

The high lead levels in Newark’s public schools would ultimately prove to be a sign of more serious problems city-wide. In 2019, the Brick City found itself in the grips of a lead water crisis, with much of the city’s drinking water contaminated with lead.

An NJ Advance Media investigation uncovered issues at a city water treatment plant that contributed to the elevated lead levels.

Since that time, the city has been working to replace 18,000 underground lead pipes to address the issue. Legislation has also been proposed and approved to improve testing requirements and water quality in Newark and New Jersey at large.

At the time the high levels of lead were discovered in Newark’s schools, schools were required to test their buildings for lead in water every 6 years and post the results on district websites. Those rules were strengthened by Governor Phil Murphy in the wake of Newark’s citywide problems, with the testing cycle now at three years. Those results are posted on a central state website.

For Newark’s part, the schools have tested the water in their buildings every year, said Wilson.

Recently, the EPA proposed and update to the Lead and Copper Rule that would reduce the national standard for lead levels to 10 parts per billion.

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published this page in News and Politics 2020-10-24 02:41:52 -0700