The American Water Works Association estimates there are 350,000 lead service lines in the state, the fifth most in the country. Inventories previously obtained by Gothamist, however, show utilities don’t know what more than a million pipes are actually made of.
Newark officials acknowledged in 2018 that their treatment processes were “no longer effective” at keeping lead from leaching into drinking water. The city’s woes came quickly on the heels of the public health crisis in Flint, Michigan, where lead from aging pipes, along with other contaminants, exposed more than 100,000 residents to unsafe drinking water.
That crisis helped train an eye on aging pipes and other failing infrastructure in communities across the country.
Newark initially estimated that it had 15,000 lead service lines — which pump water from underground mains to people’s homes — and that it would take 10 years to remove them. Ultimately, the city replaced more than 23,000 in three years, at no cost to residents, after Essex County floated $120 million in bonds for the city.
Harris said lead in the drinking water caused by these old pipes was a “long-standing issue” in communities that had suffered “without acknowledgement of the need for a sense of urgency to fix the issue. Again, this has been a model.”
Newark’s elevated lead levels first spiked in 2017, after the water treatment process at one of its water facilities failed, causing old lead pipes to corrode into the tap water. Community activists at NEW Caucus and the Natural Resources Defense Council sued the city, prompting officials to begin distributing water filters while they corrected the treatment and replaced the lead pipes.
Harris praised the work of residents and community activists for continuing to demand solutions.
“When you speak up, it matters, you all are role models for community leaders across the country,” she said.
Across New Jersey, water utilities have to inventory and then replace their lead pipes in 10 years under a package of laws Murphy signed last year.