The Essex County Improvement Authority will lend $120 million to the city of Newark to replace pipes that are contaminating water with lead, officials announced at a news conference Monday.
The replacement of the pipes will come at no cost to Newark residents, Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo Jr. said.
There are about 18,000 privately owned lead service lines within the city that need to be replaced to fix the issue, which was expected to take 8 to 10 years. The new funding will allow the city to fix these lines in 24-30 months instead, authorities said.
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka said the city has already fixed about 770 lead-service lines, but this funding will speed up the process.
“We are going to use some of these contracts and expand it. We are going to bring more crews in obviously, have a project manager over this and begin putting more people on the ground simultaneously to do this kind of work throughout the city,” Baraka said.
The announcement comes weeks after officials in New Jersey’s largest city said that the drinking water was contaminated with elevated levels of lead. Lead contamination in water can damage a child’s health and has been linked to serious, irreversible damage to developing brains.
Lead-tainted tap water first reached Newark’s radar nearly a decade ago, when water samples taken from city schools tested above a key federal threshold for safe lead levels. Problematic pipes and fixtures were replaced, but citywide testing in 2017 showed the same problem in a substantial number of homes.
Newark announced a plan to distribute water filters to residents to address the issue in October 2018. But follow-up testing found that two out of the three water filters tested may not be removing lead at the level expected, according to information provided by Newark to CNN.
Earlier this month, Newark began offering bottled water to about 14,000 households that may have been using the lead-contaminated tap water.
Newark’s crisis has clear parallels to Flint, Michigan, where longstanding dangerous lead levels in many predominantly African-American and low-income neighborhoods forced people to rely on bottled water and led to the prosecution of state and local officials.
’A step in the right direction’
While the pipe-replacement plan will address the problem in the long-term, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy said that the short-term focus continues to be “on vigilantly testing the water so that we can fully understand the extent of the challenge.”
Essex County was able to get obtain the $120 million bond because it is AAA-rated by the Moody’s Investors Service given its financial health, DiVincenzo said. That means the county was able to get the loan at a lower rate that will save $15 to $20 million over the life of the bond, he explained.
“Triple-AAA bond rating is obscure to the public, but today clearly demonstrates why it is so important,” he said.
The announcement drew praise from Dimple Chaudhary, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council who recently served as lead counsel for community groups in Flint in their lead-contamination case.
“It appears to be a step in the right direction,” Chaudhary said. “It’s a step that NRDC and its partners and have been suggesting. We have been asking the city and the state to undertake a comprehensive lead replacement project.”
But Chaudhary said that the NRDC still has its doubts about how this project will get done and asked that there be federal court oversight of the issue.