The US city that proves replacing lead water lines needn’t be a pipe dream
Newark, New Jersey, has removed more than 20,000 lead water lines while the White House pushes national plan
- This story is co-published with Ensia
In July 2018, tests showed that the drinking water supply serving Yvette Jordan’s home in Newark, New Jersey, contained nearly 45 parts per billion (ppb) of lead – three times the US Environmental Protection Agency’s action level for the neurotoxic heavy metal.
It was a similar story for many families across her city. A lead crisis had struck Newark, and it was drawing comparisons to the tainted water that devastated Flint, Michigan, a few years earlier.
Yet what has subsequently played out in Newark – for the most part, anyway – should serve as a “national model”, said Jordan, who is a high school history teacher.
Across the US, between 6 and 10m old pipes made of lead still connect people’s homes with local water supplies. As these underground lines age and corrode, more and more people are being exposed to lead, including young children who are particularly vulnerable to the metal’s impacts.
A report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) estimates that between January 2015 and March 2018, at least 5.5 million Americans received water contaminated with levels of lead that exceed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) action level of 15 ppb. Other research finds that lower-income and minority communities are disproportionately affected. In addition to lowering that action level – and making it more enforceable – public health experts urge the widespread replacement of all of these pipes.
The Biden administration won praise when it unveiled a goal in March of replacing 100% of the nation’s lead service lines, and it insists this is still achievable as talks with Republicans continue on infrastructure legislation.
Newark has shown that doing so doesn’t have to be a pipe dream.
“We’ve known how to do this for decades. It’s not like treating PFAS or any of these multisyllabic chemicals,” said Daniel Van Abs, a water-use expert at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
“We know what the issue is, we know what the health effects are, we know how to deal with it,” he added. “It really comes down to political will.”
Since early 2019, residents of Newark have watched workers dig up and swap out thousands of lead lines that long linked their homes with the city’s water main. Jordan saw hers replaced last spring. By this spring, local officials had removed more than 20,000 lead service lines. It’s an impressive feat, especially considering that recently updated federal regulations allow cities 33 years to accomplish the same task.
“We’ve shown it’s possible,” said Newark’s mayor, Ras Baraka. “And it can get done fairly quickly.”
Joe Biden announced the goal of eradicating all of the remaining lead water lines in the country as part of his administration’s $2tn American Jobs Plan, which would have allocated $111bn to improve water infrastructure, including $45bn on replacing the lead lines.
Hopes for that level of overall investment in water infrastructure have faded, with an initial framework for a bipartisan infrastructure deal published last month describing $55bn for water infrastructure, partly from private public partnerships.
However, as the bipartisan talks continue on infrastructure legislation, the Biden administration is still insisting plans to replace 100% of lead lines remain alive and that it is an area where Democrats and Republicans agree.
No safe level
The threat of lead in US drinking water gained widespread attention in the wake of the Flint water crisis. This January in Michigan, eight former state officials and one now suspended employee were criminally charged for their roles in that environmental disaster, which was sparked by a switch in the city’s water source from the Detroit water and sewerage department to the Flint River. Due, in part, to local officials not using corrosion control measures, lead and other pollutants leached from the pipes into residents’ drinking water.
Lead pipes are not the only source of lead in drinking water. The heavy metal can leach into water from corroding leaded brass or bronze faucets and fixtures. Joe Cotruvo, an environmental and public health consultant based in Washington DC, and formerly with the EPA’s Office of Drinking Water, notes that even the surface of old galvanized iron pipes can accumulate lead from the water.
This is one reason why lead can still pose a significant concern for the roughly 15% of Americans who rely on private wells for their water.
No safe level of lead has been identified by national or global health agencies.
Lead exposure can cause heart, kidney and reproductive issues in adults. But young children face the greatest risks. Low-dose exposures have been linked with hyperactivity, slowed growth and a lower IQ. And, across a population, lead exposure can add up to a lot more needed investment in special education and medical resources, as well as major dents in economic productivity.
Rachel DeWitt, a physician assistant at St Joseph Mercy Ann Arbor hospital in Ypsilanti, Michigan, said that in the case of a city like Flint or Newark, lead exposure imposes “a major tax on a community that didn’t have a lot of resources to begin with”. Indeed, the racial disparities in childhood lead poisoning are stark: 5.6% of Black children have blood lead levels exceeding the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) action limit of 5 micrograms a liter compared with 2.4% of white children.
Acknowledging the many health risks, Congress banned the use of lead water pipes in 1986.
Getting the lead out
Kareem Adeem was born and raised in Newark. In 1991, the city hired him to fill potholes. Over the following decades, Adeem worked his way up and, despite his lack of a college degree, was promoted to acting director of Newark’s department of water and sewer utilities in 2018. By then, the city’s water woes had come to a head.
In March 2016, elevated lead levels were detected in the drinking water of nearly half of Newark’s public schools, originating from old fixtures and faucets, and the solder between water pipes. The next year, lead levels in one out of every five water samples taken in the city exceeded the EPA’s action level. Further tests in the second half of 2018 found even higher levels. After some prompting from local activists and national groups, Newark then began rapidly addressing the issue with Adeem now at the helm.
“This is our system. We need to protect it,” said Adeem. “And we’re going to continue to invest in it so this problem will never happen again.”
In March 2019, contractors began pulling out Newark’s old lead lines. The original plan was to complete the large project in about eight years, but with financial help from the county and state, they “ramped it up”, said Thomas Schoettle, a senior vice-president at CDM Smith, the engineering and construction firm hired by the city.
The last two rounds of water samples, conducted throughout 2020, showed that Newark was back in compliance with EPA regulations. The city and the state department of environmental protection subsequently reached a settlement in late January with advocacy groups, including the Newark Education Workers Caucus that Jordan, the history teacher, chairs. The groups had sued in 2018 over alleged violations of the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water Act.
Still, not everyone is happy with how Newark has dealt with its lead crisis. A New York Times investigation published in August 2019 concluded that city officials “brushed aside warnings and allowed the system to deteriorate, while state and federal regulators often did not intervene forcefully enough to help prevent the crisis”.
Even city officials agree that getting the lead pipes out should have been done decades ago. “Environmental issues should not be continually kicked down the curb for 30, 40, 50 years. And this was a huge one,” said Adeem. “Some of my colleagues around the country were mad at me. ‘Why are you guys replacing lead services so fast? You’re going to put pressure on everybody to do it.’ But this really could have been done in 1986.”
Many scientists and advocates have been forgiving. It’s to be expected that, when facing such a situation, the first thing a public official might do is “to duck” or “to say something defensive”, said Van Abs, of Rutgers University. “But Newark got over that and decided to do something different.”
Erik Olson, a senior strategic director at the NRDC, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, has been critical of how long it took Newark to admit they had a problem and to address it. But he, too, suggested their efforts should now serve as a national model. “We’d like to see cities across the US really aggressively move ahead with a lead service line replacement program, along the lines of what Newark and Flint have done,” said Olson.