New plan to replace Newark’s lead pipes in 2 years rather than 10
Essex County will borrow $120 million on Newark’s behalf to speed up the city’s replacement of lead water service lines to around 18,000 residences, a group of elected officials announced today.
Newark has already replaced over 770 service lines since March under a plan that would have taken up to a decade to complete. Now that test results have come back that threw into doubt the effectiveness of filters intended to be a temporary solution, the new goal is to have the work complete by early 2022.0
“As an elected official, I don’t want to wait that long, I want this long-term solution to happen sooner rather than later,” said Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo of the 10-year timeframe.
“We all know that we have to work faster and harder and together, importantly, to restore residents’ trust in their water,” Gov. Phil Murphy said. “Doing so will require broad cooperation at all levels to find solutions.”
“It’s expected that work can be completed in much less time than originally anticipated – as was talked about, the 8 to 10 years,” Newark Mayor Ras Baraka said. “We are going to do this as swiftly as humanly possible.”
The Essex County Improvement Authority will borrow $120 million and lend it to Newark for its pipe replacement program. The city will repay the borrowing, not the county.
“This will allow them to ramp up the program and reduce the time it takes to change every pipe to 24 to 30 months, instead of a decade,” DiVincenzo said.
Baraka said the replacements will be made at no cost to homeowners. The city’s original arrangement with the state, for a $75 million bond that the state was subsidizing, had called for the homeowners to pay for 10% of the replacement cost.
“With this new money, we’re anticipating that no one would have to pay anything to get their lead service lines actually replaced,” Baraka said.
Baraka said a plan for repaying Essex County is being developed.
“We are not going to raise taxes for the residents of the city based on that. We are working actually on something else as we speak – I can’t get into it right now – to be able to pay the debt service, so the city is not on the taxpayers’ head,” Baraka said.
U.S. Rep. Donald Payne Jr, D-Newark, said there is a role for the federal government to pay for the replacement of lead services lines in many communities across the country.
“Yes, this $120 million is going to help, but we know we have infrastructure problems in this city and in this country that need to be rectified. So we are not stopping on the federal level in order to secure funds that help us fix this infrastructure moving into the future.”
DiVincenzo said Essex County’s AAA bond rating makes the financing plan possible. The lower interest rate will save Newark $15 million to $20 million over the life of the bond, he said.
“This assistance would not have been possible five, 10 or 15 years ago because of the financial pressure we were experiencing at the county level. The AAA bond rating is an obscure achievement to the public, but today clearly demonstrates why it is so important,” he said.
City and county officials will be voting over the next few days to approve the plan. An additional sign-off will be needed by the state Division of Local Government Services.
DiVincenzo said the same financing offer will be made to Bloomfield, Belleville and Nutley, three other Essex County municipalities that purchase water through Newark’s Pequannock system and face the same issue.
Baraka said testing continues on about 225 water filters to determine their effectiveness, and he wouldn’t discuss partial results about elevated lead levels. Murphy said the actions taken to date are based on three data points in which lead levels were found to be reduced meaningfully though not below the safety standard in two of the three instances.
“There’s so much doubt created around these filters that we need to get the lead service lines completed in a more expeditious manner,” Baraka said.
“Once there was doubt created about the filters, it sent us into overdrive in terms of how we needed to address this problem as quickly as we can," he said.
Baraka said the city will expand the current, competitively bid contracts to speed up the replacement of water service lines and that “because this is an emergency situation” the city will next seek to bypass competitive bidding to expand the number of contractors on the ground.