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When Newark, New Jersey made headlines in 2019 for a lead water crisis that impacted one in five of its citizens, people saw an echo of Flint, Michigan’s colossal public health crisis. But two years later, Newark has replaced the vast majority of its lead pipes with copper ones—a feat so impressive, an environmental group quickly settled its lawsuit over the crisis with the city. Newark Mayor Ras Baraka joins to discuss mistakes and takeaways from the cleanup effort.
The water crisis in Flint, Michigan drew stark attention to failures across the country to replace an estimated 6 to 10 million lead water lines. The bipartisan infrastructure deal allocated $15 billion for a lead removal initiative, far less than the $45 billion initially proposed and a fraction of what the water industry says it would take to fully replace all lead water lines.
But Newark, new jersey has set a model. Two years after its own crisis with lead-tainted drinking water – nearly all of its 23,000 lead pipes have been replaced with copper ones.
I recently spoke with Newark Mayor Ras Baraka about the progress his city has made.
Mr. Mayor, thank you for joining us. How is it possible that within two years or so, Newark is able to replace some 18,000 plus lead service lines, lines that the city doesn't even own?
Besides God's grace, brother? A lot of work, I think, that's been put in by the water department, the kind of collaborative effort that was engaged in by the city, the county, the state, working together to find a solution to this and us obviously find the money up front that I know a lot of municipalities have not been able to do. And that's really the crux of the issue, like being able to find a capital to do this work.
You're providing a service that amounts to what is free to the homeowners who actually own the lead service lines. Why do the free option, why not have homeowners pay some of the cost of this?
We believe is a public health issue and I think it's the responsibility of the state and the municipal government to deal with public health issues like that, unless you're talking about a demographic of folks who may not have the money to pay for it, if we left it up to people to replace their lead service lines, we will be going over this still for years and years to come.
It sounds to me as if this might be really hard to duplicate in other places across the country.
I would agree. The way we did it, absolutely. And when people say, oh, this is the model, theoretically, yes, right. But it's very difficult. It was difficult for us to go on people's property to change their lead service lines, difficult to get the permission to do so and use public dollars to pay private people's lines. All of that is state law and needs to be changed to transform. Those things need to happen in multiple cities across the country. And then the federal government has to provide the revenue upfront to these municipalities to get these things done in an expeditious way or else it won't get done.
Now, you couldn't just go onto people's property. And some of these property owners, like absent landlords, for instance, are hard to reach when they own property.
Over 70% of the people in the city rent. And so most of this work will be done in homes where people are renting and the landlords are not present. Right. And so in order to do that, we would have to get a signature from every homeowner that would allow us to go on their property and change their lead service lines. Obviously, we have a lot of homeowners that are not here in Newark that are away, some that can't be reached. And we use that to pass a municipal law that allowed us to, in this emergency situation, go on people's property, you know, change the lead service line without their consent.
Mr. Mayor, there are some missteps along the way. You put out a brochure and you spoke about the water meeting federal and state standards, and there was a lot of pushback from that. What were you trying to tell the public? And do you have reservations now, regrets now about putting out that brochure?
You know, it's interesting. I think a lot of people talk about the brochure, but they actually have not read it. What was being said was the water at the source was fine. The problem was the fact that you had a lead service line and it said that very clearly. And what we were doing was pushing back against this NRDC kind of complaint that they had in the court at the time.
That's the Natural Resources Defense Council, the NRDC?
Yes, we are pushing back against that. And, you know, ultimately, I think that our misstep was focusing on that when we really should have just been trying to get the message out to the folks as clear as possible.
Mr. Mayor, the infrastructure bill through Congress right now has $15 billion and the president wanted $45 billion. We're talking about some, across the nation I believe, it's some 10 million lead service lines that need to be replaced. Is $15 billion, based on your experience in Newark, is that going to get the job done?
I think is an incredible start to where we need to be. Obviously, what happens is, see the number of lead service lines is what people have on record. Right. So even in Newark, we had on our record about 18,000 or so less service lines. We've changed over 20,000 now. Right. Because we didn't just go by what our records say, we actually went out to places that we assume may have this based on the age of the home, all this other stuff, and some of the places were changed by the grace of God and other places we had to change ourselves. And so I think that that number is going to increase. Right. And so those numbers, the funding is based on what people are estimating. I think when we really get in the ground, you'll figure out that it's probably a lot more lead service lines than people anticipate. And so we're going to have to spend some real money to get these things fixed or changed. Our lead levels are below what the federal government requires, but they're way below now. You know, if you don't have a lead service line with the corrosion control work in the system as well, you know, in some houses it's non detectable. And that's what we want.
Even though it's below the EPA of 15 parts per billion, I believe it is, even though the levels now are way below that, there are still some people who don't trust and aren't going to trust Newark's water. What do you say to that?
Newark's had the finest water in a state, probably in some of the top in the country for a very long time, that's why we always had all the beer companies here. We have a huge water reservoir. We never had, when the state has a drought, Newark never experiences that. We have, you know, millions of gallons of water in reserve here in a city, in a pristine system up there that obviously has to be treated because it's out in the open. And I would tell people to get their water tested, it's free. And there is no secret, like, go ahead and get it done. And if you see something wrong or hear something wrong, you call the water department and they'll be right on out.
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka. Mr. Mayor, thank you for your time.
Absolutely. Thank you.
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