The success of New Jersey’s biggest city at replacing nearly 24,000 lead drinking water pipes can serve as a national model and shows why infrastructure spending is vital, Vice President Kamala Harris said Friday in Newark.
Harris attended a roundtable discussion along side Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan, Gov. Phil Murphy, Mayor Ras Baraka and other officials and residents.
Newark recently replaced lead service lines, a project expected to take up to a decade, in under three years, according to city and state officials, making the city an “example and role model of what cities around our country are capable of doing,” Harris said.
Her visit marks the start of what she said was a “road show” around the country to talk about the importance of removing lead pipes and to promote the $1 trillion infrastructure legislation President Joe Biden signed into law in November. The measure contains $15 billion for lead pipe removal and replacement, with $3 billion going out this year.
It also comes in a midterm election year when Democrats are on the defensive after warning signs in last year’s elections and eager to point to examples of government successes.
Lead pipes are a legacy of aging infrastructure across the country, and removing and replacing them has proven to be a challenge as some states and utilities confront a lack of clear inventories. It’s also a pricey problem to fix.
The vice president’s visit — meant to hail a federal infusion of cash — also lays bare a funding gap facing the state if all the lead lines in the state are to be replaced. New Jersey is getting a $1 billion infusion from the federal bipartisan legislation, a significant sum aimed at updating drinking water and sewer systems, but it’s a fraction of the estimated $30 billion in funds needed to complete the overhaul, according to state environmental regulators.
This year, the state is getting $170 million in funds for water infrastructure. State regulators say they want utilities and local governments across the state to come forward during planned hearings to apply for funds.
New Jersey is also trying to implement a 2021 law that requires a lead pipe inventory, along with replacement of all lead service lines over the next decade. The source for that funding isn’t clear.
The federal funding, Murphy said Friday, “could not be more perfectly timed.”
Kareem Adeem, the head of Newark’s water and sewer department, said the a big hurdle to replacing the the city’s lead lines was getting the right to access people’s homes to check for lead pipes, a challenge in a city where 75% of residents are renters. Once city officials passed an ordinance to allow for access, the project moved quickly, he said.
Kim Gaddy, the national environmental justice director for Clean Water Action and an activist in Newark, has been reserved about the state’s plan to spend the federal infrastructure cash.
“We need to watchdog this to make sure it’s spent the right way,” she said in a recent interview.
Newark’s water crisis came to a head in 2018 when the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, sued and claimed the city had acted too slowly and downplayed the danger to residents after a corrosion control system was found to be failing in 2017. The city added a different chemical to the water that acted as a coating on the inside of the lead pipes, but eventually had to distribute water filters, and in some cases bottled water, to residents after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found high lead levels in some locations in 2019 despite the filters.
Faced with replacing more than 20,000 residential lead service lines, a task initially expected to take up to a decade, Newark finished the project in under three years, city and state officials said. A $120 million loan from Essex County was crucial, as were an amendment to a state law that allowed public dollars to be used for the replacement, and a city ordinance that allowed tenants to provide access to buildings, eliminating the need to track down absentee landlords.
The city also created a program that trained about 75 unemployed and underemployed residents to work on the line replacement crews, officials said.
The challenge of removing lead from drinking water in the U.S. was spotlighted several years ago after the Flint, Michigan, scandal in which city leaders switched water sources to save money. That led to criminal charges, though many later were dropped, and a settlement of more than $600 million for the residents of the poor, majority Black city.