For three years, New Jersey’s largest city struggled to address lead contamination in the public’s drinking water. Newark and state officials tried to determine the extent of excess lead and respond appropriately.

That wasn’t easy because while only a handful of tested households had high lead levels in their water, there were 18,000 residential and business properties using service lines made of lead that could contaminate the water at any time.

Old lead pipes can leach the toxic metal if water treatment plants don’t maintain proper corrosion control, or simply if heavy vehicle traffic disturbs the pipes.

About 15,000 single- and multi-family Newark homes get their water from a Pequannock treatment plant that had a problem with corrosion control and upgraded its system in May. The city distributed 38,000 faucet filters, but some question whether they are all working effectively or being properly used.

This month, the federal Environmental Protection Agency told the city and the state Department of Environmental Protection that Newark should provide bottled water to residents with lead service lines that connect their residences to utility water pipes at the street.

Decisive action on the problem finally was taken this week by the city and the Essex County Improvement Authority. The authority will lend the city $120 million to speed up replacement of its lead water pipes.

Since March, the city has replaced about 770 lead service lines with copper pipes. At that pace the job would have taken a decade.

The loan from the county will enable Newark to replace its 18,000 lead service lines over the next 24 to 30 months.

Property owners, who own the service lines, were going to pay 10% of the cost of replacing the lines of up to $10,000. Under the new plan funded by the loan, the city will cover all of the cost.

Newark was alerted to its trouble after a severe lead-pipe problem in Flint, Michigan, raised awareness of the danger for millions of homes that still have the outmoded plumbing.

Until the middle of the last century, lead was the metal of choice for service pipes because it was workable and isn’t corroded by water. As the toxicity of lead became understood, it was removed from gasoline and as of 1970 no longer used for water pipes.

As of 1986 there were 10.2 million lead service lines still in use in the U.S., many in older homes in the Northeast and South. Surveys by the American Water Works Association indicate there are still 6 million lead lines, serving 15 million to 22 million people. Its 2013 survey found more than 300,000 lead service lines in New Jersey, the overwhelming majority of them in municipalities of 10,000 to 50,000 people.

So let Newark’s problem serve as a potential warning to other communities in New Jersey. There may not be a safe level of lead in drinking water, and the only way to be certain of eliminating it is to replace lead service lines.

The state should work with utilities to identify where remaining lead lines are located and inform the public. That should sufficiently motivate residents to help develop a plan to replace them.

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