Newark has a major obstacle to face in its quest to deal with the lead in its drinking water: absentee landlords.
The city is now moving at an accelerated pace to replace about 18,000 decades-old lead service lines, which carry water from mains to individual properties.
Now, city officials are hoping that state lawmakers will give them a new tool to deal with the problem property owners.
At a news conference Monday announcing $120 million to replace the pipes in Newark, Mayor Ras Baraka told reporters he was pushing for a state law that would mandate the hundreds of thousands of lead service lines throughout the state be replaced.
“We’ve been speaking to state legislators, particularly the Essex County delegation, our senator (Teresa Ruiz) here, about creating a law or ordinance that would allow us to go on people’s property and fix their lead service lines without their permission," Baraka said.
It’s a big problem in Newark, where 78% of residents are renters and absentee landlords often mean trouble.
“Some property owners are difficult to find," said Frank Baraff, a spokesman for the city. "The tenants may want the line replaced, but the property owner is hiding behind an LLC somewhere.”
The lead service lines have been identified as the source of lead in the city’s water. Newark’s recent lead problems began when the city’s method of treating water to prevent the lead pipes from corroding failed.
The work to replace the lead service lines is being spurred on by a new $120 million county bond and is expected to be done within three years. But that timeline is dependent on property owners signing up for the city’s line replacement program, and so far getting people to sign up has been tricky. It’s unclear how many people have signed up.
State Sen. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, confirmed she’s working on drafting a statewide bill.
“We’re a city that has a lot of renters,” Ruiz, who represents Newark in the Senate, told NJ Advance Media. “And if you have a landlord that’s not engaged and doesn’t sign up, then it would prevent the city from replacing the lead-lined pipes. And therefore, that’s not allowing us to protect the renters, who should have a voice in this process.”
“The goal here is to innovate resources and tools to get the jobs done as swiftly and effectively as possible,” she added.
The bill likely won’t be voted on until October or November, Ruiz said.
“But (the city) can take care of the people who sign up, and the bill hopefully will get passed in the fall,” she said.
Ruiz added that the measure would likely be part of a package of bills addressing lead.
The bill would have impact far beyond Newark. New Jersey has an estimated 350,000 lead service lines, according to the American Water Works Association. New Jersey Future, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that works to promote infrastructure investment, estimates that replacing all of the lead service lines in the Garden State will cost $2 billion.
Chris Sturm, New Jersey Future’s managing director for policy and water, said a bill requiring the replacement of lead service lines statewide is good as long as it is supplemented by funding so that the cost doesn’t fall on unprepared homeowners.
“This whole thing can be solved, it just takes commitment,” Sturm said.
The Newark City Council approved a series of measures on the $120 million county bond at an emergency meeting held on Tuesday. Final approval is set for Sept. 10.
“This has been a very hard last couple of weeks for the city, for the residents, for the administration, for the mayor and council,” Central Ward Councilwoman LaMonica McIver said.
“It’s not just a Newark problem, despite what people what to put out there. You should continue to put your trust in the city and people who have the credentials to give you the proper information.”