As Newark Eliminates Lead Water Pipes, NJ Advances 10-Year Plan For Statewide Removal

Two summers ago, a typically underground problem exploded into national controversy when water filters in Newark failed to remove lead from residents' tap water.

Headlines compared New Jersey's largest city to a notorious water crisis years earlier in Flint, Michigan.

Officials all the way up to Gov. Phil Murphy acknowledged the lead pipes that tainted Newark's water were not just in the city, but in homes — and hundreds of schools — across the state. It was a decades-old problem that New Jersey had repeatedly failed to fix.

Alongside advocates for clean water and children's health, leaders pledged to make change.

Now, environmental advocates say, New Jersey is at a turning point when it comes to eradicating lead, a dangerous metal used in older pipes and paint that can permanently damage a child's brain.

Newark is on the verge of completing its lead pipe replacement program, removing more than 20,000 pipes in about two years. For comparison, Flint has replaced about 10,000 pipes in five years.

And lead pipes across the state would be replaced with safer plumbing in the next decade under a bill that lawmakers are expected to send to the governor on Thursday. 

New Jersey would be just the third state to mandate replacement of lead pipes, according to the Environmental Defense Fund.

"The lead service line replacement bill is a revolutionary step forward in making New Jersey lead-free," said Chris Sturm, managing director of policy and water at New Jersey Future.

Sturm said replacing lead pipes "is the most important step toward safe drinking water."

"We've come a long way," she added. 

There are an estimated 350,000 lead service lines in New Jersey, among the highest of any state, according to the Environmental Defense Fund.

The bill headed to Murphy's desk requires a complete inventory of those pipes and requires water utilities to replace 10% of the pipes every year over 10 years. Utilities can seek an extension for another 5 years, for a total replacement timeline of 15 years, if needed, the bill says.

Private and government water utilities, according to the bill, could increase rates to pay for replacement of lead service lines, which are the pipes that run underground from water mains and into homes.

Murphy is likely to sign the bill into law. In 2019, he endorsed a 10-year replacement plan unveiled by Jersey Water Works, a coalition of advocates that recommended a path to making drinking water safe.

Of the five states with the most lead pipes, only two others — Michigan and Illinois — have set schedules for replacement, and of those, New Jersey's is the most aggressive at 10 years, according to Tom Neltner, chemicals policy director for the Environmental Defense Fund.

The bill's Senate sponsor, Burlington County Democrat Sen. Troy Singleton, said he hoped the bill marked a turning point in New Jersey's decades-long lead plumbing problem.

"We're so far behind, and the issue is so great," he said. "I think this is a good down payment on trying to correct the problem.”

Lead pipes, which were banned in 1986, are still found in older homes. Lead can leach from the pipes and taint water, which is especially harmful to children. No amount of lead is safe, and consuming it can cause development and neurological delays. 

Typically, utilities add chemicals to the water to prevent the lead from entering the water, but the only way to erase the threat of lead is to remove the pipes themselves.

Newark has already replaced over 20,000 lead pipes, and water officials there expect to finish the replacement project by September.

“I’m ecstatic about that," Newark Mayor Ras Baraka said in an interview. "And more importantly, relieved that we were able to accomplish this and get it done in the middle of all of what was going on" during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"We kept our heads down and stayed focused on getting this thing done," he added. "I think that’s all you can do.”  

Work continued during the pandemic, which at first slowed pipe replacements, the mayor said. The city has cut the level of lead found during water tests by two-thirds between the crisis in 2019 and the last half of 2020, according to test results posted by the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Testing in the last six months of 2020 showed lead levels at 13 parts per billion, just under the federal threshold of 15 parts per billion at which corrective action is required. 

Newark must finish the pipe replacements and continue to provide free water filters and testing as part of a lawsuit settlement with Newark Education Workers and Natural Resources Defense Council.

Anthony Diaz, co-founder of the Newark Water Coalition, said replacing pipes was a first step toward reversing the city's history of problems with tainted water. He said the city should launch a public education campaign to help residents trust their water is now safe.

“It's strange that I use bottled water even that I know lead levels are OK," Diaz said.

"If I'm doing this, as someone who knows the science, its something other people are doing. I think we need to talk about this issue.” 

Estimates have pegged the total cost of replacing the state's lead water pipes at about $2 billion.

Murphy and Senate President Stephen Sweeney supported borrowing some of that funding, but the pandemic — and fears it would wreck the state's finances, leading to the decision to borrow $4 billion — diverted focus from safe drinking water.

While that cost might seem astronomical, the state is in an enviable position with a $10 billion year-end surplus and over $6 billion in the bank from the American Rescue Plan federal stimulus.

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Lawmakers have begun spending that $6 billion sum, but have yet to earmark any for lead pipe replacement.

Another financial windfall could come as part of President Biden's American Jobs Plan infrastructure package, which explicitly addressed removing lead pipes.

Yet that measure is being whittled down in negotiations with Republicans in Congress who have been averse to the $2 trillion price tag.

Some municipalities are using their own stimulus funds to remove dangerous pipes. Bloomfield Mayor Michael Venezia dedicated about $2 million from $26 million in American Rescue Plan dollars to replace lead pipes at about 250 homes.

Venezia estimated there are about 1,500 lead service lines in the township of 49,000 residents.

"We're very thankful," the mayor said. "If we do get more money in the new infrastructure bill, that will allow us to speed up the process even more and commit more money and get it done." 

Advocates hope some of the funding will help cities where residents may not be able to shoulder increased water rates to pay for pipe removal.

"Much work remains to be done," said Neltner, of the Environmental Defense Fund.

"A critical next step is securing funding for those communities that struggle with unaffordable water rates."

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