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NEWARK, NJ — Newark got its second visit from Vice President Kamala Harris in a year when she came to the Garden State to praise the city for its battle against lead water contamination on Friday.
Harris, who visited Essex County in October to speak about child care and COVID-19 vaccines, had a different issue on her mind during her latest visit: lead.
“Today I’m heading to Newark ... to talk about how our bipartisan infrastructure law will remove lead pipes across America," Harris tweeted prior to her arrival in New Jersey.
The vice president's choice of venues wasn't a coincidence. Three years ago, Newark made national headlines when it confronted a lead water crisis. At one point, the lead levels at some points in the city’s drinking water had risen to 47 parts per billion at some sites, more than three times the federal threshold. It prompted an outcry from residents – and a lawsuit from advocates.
In August 2019, federal officials insisted that the city temporarily provide bottled water to many residents, who had been using city-provided filters in their homes as a stopgap measure. Although the U.S. EPA's order was rescinded shortly afterwards, it inspired people to send waves of bottled water donations from across the state.
Newark eventually identified two sources of the contamination. One was the way the city treated its water, which allowed excess corrosion to take place in aging pipes. The city responded by rolling out a new method of treating its water, which is also sold to several nearby towns and cities in Essex County.
The second issue wasn’t as quick of a fix, however.
Newark officials traced some of the contamination to lead-lined service pipes leading to thousands of local homes. The pipes – which connect local homes and businesses to the local water supply – can potentially leach contamination as water passes through them. A portion of the pipes may be privately owned, complicating efforts to replace them.
Despite the challenges and scope of the project, Newark has since replaced almost 20,000 lead service pipes, a massive effort that is expected to cost at least $120 million by the time it's through.
Normally the work can cost thousands of dollars, but Newark offered it at no cost for residents through a municipal replacement program. There were no tax increases or water rate hikes as a result, city officials say.
The city also got a big boost from Essex County, which helped it to finance the massive pipe replacement project.
In July 2021, Mayor Ras Baraka announced that the average lead levels in Newark water fell "well below the federal benchmark for acceptable levels" for the third straight reporting period – a huge turning point in its battle against lead contamination.
Now, the effort has caught the eye of the vice president.
On Friday, Harris met with Baraka and other officials, including Gov. Phil Murphy, Sen. Cory Booker and Sen. Bob Menendez, Rep. Donald Payne Jr. and EPA administrator Michael Regan. She congratulated the city on its progress – particularly when it comes to replacing lead pipes.
Harris called Newark a "role model" for other cities and towns seeking to replace their own lead pipes. She also touted the recently passed federal infrastructure law, which will help pay to replace such lines throughout the nation.
Although Newark has reportedly turned the corner with its lead contamination crisis, there are still many other municipalities with lead service lines throughout the state.
In July 2021, Murphy signed a package of laws that will require hundreds of community water systems in New Jersey to replace these lines within the next decade.
See related article: New Jersey Is Replacing Its Lead Water Pipes – All Of Them
See related article: Newark Isn't Only NJ City At Risk Of Lead Water, Map Shows
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.
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