Newark to speed replacing of pipes blamed for lead in water

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) - New Jersey's biggest city on Monday announced a plan to borrow $120 million to dramatically cut the time it will take to replace pipes causing elevated lead levels in drinking water.

City, state and county officials said the plan is expected to cut the time from 10 years to under 30 months to replace about 18,000 lead lines in Newark.

The announcement came about two weeks after the city began distributing water bottles to residents in about 14,000 homes. Water from two houses tested positive for lead above the federal threshold of 15 parts per billion.

The plan depends on approval by city and county officials, who are expected to vote on the $120 million bond proposal Tuesday.

Authorities had called on the federal government to help but said Monday they would move forward with their own plan to speed lead pipe replacement.

"We couldn't wait for them to react," Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo said. "We had to do it first."

Prior to the start of the MTV Video Music Awards in Newark on Monday, a group of about 75 clean water activists marched up to the corner of the Prudential Center, the Asbury Park Press reported .

The protesters chanted, "We don't want no MTV, we want our water lead free," according to the newspaper.

Nearly 800 lines have been replaced since March, using money from the state. Homeowners were going to be responsible for paying 10% of the replacement cost since the lines aren't owned by the city, but officials said they won't have to pay under the plan announced Monday.

Newark passed out nearly 40,000 water filters beginning last year but had to start handing out bottled water two weeks ago after a few homes using the filters had higher-than-expected lead levels.

The lead is leaching into the water from pipes and is not originating from the source water.

Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, stressed again Monday that just two homes that were using the filters had tested positive for lead.

The state Department of Environmental Protection said last week that 225 additional homes are being tested, a process that will last a few more weeks. Residents will receive bottled water while the testing continues.

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, also a Democrat, declined to detail any results from the most recent round of testing.

The city is also awaiting a decision from a federal judge in a motion filed by an environmental group to force the city to expand the water distribution program to cover additional residents. A decision is expected soon.

The Natural Resources Defense Council says those residents also are at risk from excessive lead levels, in part due to the blending of water from another plant - something the city has said it discontinued by closing gates and valves between the two sources.