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VP Kamala Harris touts Newark’s progress in removing lead water pipes during trip to NJ

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Vice President Kamala Harris, making her second trip to New Jersey in four months, came to Newark Friday to praise state and local officials for their success in quickly replacing the city’s lead water pipes.

Harris took part in a roundtable discussion at a youth recreation center that also included Gov. Phil Murphy, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, US Environmental Protection Administrator Michael Regan and others.

She was introduced by Murphy, a fellow Democrat who last summer signed legislation mandating that all 350,000 of the lead service lines estimated in New Jersey be replaced by 2031. Murphy noted that Newark’s replacement program predated the federal infrastructure act, and instead was financed largely by $120 million in bonds authorized by Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo.

But the $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law approved by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden in November includes $1 billion over five years for New Jersey to help cover the cost of replacing the state’s lead lines outside of Newark. It’s a combined task that the American Water Works Association has estimated to cost $2.3 billion.

Harris said it was “wonderful” to be back in New Jersey, noting that New Jersey was the home state of her husband, Douglas Emhoff, and praised the governor for signing such an “extraordinary” lead removal law. She then turned to Baraka.

“Mayor, I think you,” Harris said. “This has been a long-standing issue and you came in and cut through red tape, made this a high priority and have now made it such a role model that the administrator and I, who have taken a road show to talk about the importance of removing lead from pipes and paint, we came here at the beginning of this tour to highlight what you have accomplished here in Newark as an example and a role model for what cities around our country are capable of doing.”

The event was attended by the state’s two US senators, Robert Menendez and Cory Booker, representatives Frank Pallone and Donald Payne Jr., and more than 100 local, county, state and federal officials.

Newark’s water crisis began to boil when elevated levels of lead in drinking water were discovered in 30 schools. By August 2019, residents from around the city were lining up for bottled water because of high lead levels.

Newark’s estimated inventory of lead service lines gradually increased from an initial 15,000 to 23,000 at last count, and officials said there were a total of 64 lines left to replace as of Friday.

“This is an issue that is about community leadership,” Harris said during the roundtable discussion, which was held at the Training Recreation Education Center in Newark. “And on any issue that we face as a nation — certainly any issue that reaches crisis — let’s use this as an example of where community leadership always leads us in the right direction.”

Harris was joined by several federal, state and local officials, including Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan, Gov. Phil Murphy, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, and Reps. Frank Pallone Jr., D-6th Dist., and Donald Payne Jr., D-10th Dist.

The trip served to highlight President Joe Biden’s $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure law, which included $1 billion over five years for New Jersey to help cover the cost of replacing its 350,000 lead water pipes. The state legislature has passed legislation requiring that every lead water pipe be replaced, which the American Water Works Association estimated would cost $2.3 billion.

Harris said that lead contamination in water was a serious health issue, especially for infants and children.

“It’s hurting our babies,” she said. “Over half of the children of our nation who are under the age of six are at risk on this issue. It is well-documented and, at this point, without debate what this does in terms of impeding the God-given capacity of our children to learn and to thrive. It is a public health issue. It is an equity issue. It is an issue of education. It is an issue of whether we are willing to invest in our future in terms of investing in our communities.”

The vice president visited New Jersey in October, touring a day care center at Montclair State University in Little Falls to tout legislation that would reduce child care costs. She also visited a vaccination site at Essex County Community College in Newark, where she urged Americans to be protected against COVID-19.

NJ Advance Media staff writer Jonathan D. Salant contributed to this report

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Steve Strunsky may be reached at [email protected]

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