Newark and the Politics of Clean Water 


On January 20, 2009, at the end of the presidential administration of George W. Bush and the inauguration of his successor, Barack Obama, I stepped down as Region 2 EPA Administrator.  This was a position I had held during the second term of Bush 43, and serving in that position had been my ultimate career goal. 

My staff at Region 2 EPA was the best group of career government officials with whom I had the good fortune and pleasure to serve. This enabled me to achieve virtually all of my major goals: the completion of the plan for the first stages of the Passaic River Superfund Cleanup, the renewal and upgrade of the Filtration Avoidance Determination for New York City water, the restoration of the Ringwood Mines Superfund Site to the Superfund National Priorities List, the finalization of a two billion dollar judgment committing the Puerto Rican Aqueduct and Sewer Authority to major overall remediation and upgrades, the development of a plan to compel major landfill closures in Puerto Rico, the completion of the dredge processing facility for the General Electric Hudson River Superfund site  at Fort Edward, New York, the completion of the New York State Implementation Plan for air quality, and the finalization of a remediation consent judgment for Lake Onondaga, New York in the Syracuse region.  

There was, of course, one highly sensitive matter that was on my plate when I arrived at Region 2 EPA.  There had been substantial controversy regarding the performance of EPA after 9-11, and now four years after the catastrophe, there was the need to develop a test and clean program for Lower Manhattan indoor spaces.   

In fact, one of the first phone calls I received when I arrived at Region 2 EPA in 2005 regarding the need for such a test and clean plan was from the then Senator from New York Hillary Clinton.  With excellent cooperation from the administration of the then Mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg, we at Region 2 EPA were able to devise and implement such a plan. 

Irony:  The one New York Congressman who objected to the test and clean program was Congressman Jerry Nadler. He and I debated this issue on WNBC -TV morning news, link to video below.  Today, I am a major supporter of Jerry Nadler in his role as House Judiciary Chair in his conduct of an impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump.  Times do change! 

The media had been quite favorable to me during my tenure, and during my last few weeks at Region 2 EPA, I was happy to discuss both my accomplishments and what I felt would be the leading environmental issues of the future. 

Most inquiring journalists suggested to me that climate change was the leading environmental issue that future administrations would have to face.  My response was that indeed climate change was a major issue, but I was confident that significant progress would be made, as long as 1) America continued to participate in international cooperative conferences on climate, such as the Paris Accord which was established long after I left EPA in 2016; and 2) America would continue to work for the elimination of coal -fired power plants.  

Coal is not only the leading cause of greenhouse gases; it is also pure environmental health poison, with huge emissions of air toxics like mercury and criteria pollutants destructive of lungs like nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide.  Even if public officials were skeptical of climate change, I felt certain that they would work towards the elimination of coal, given the health risks.  This would both enhance public health and minimize anthropogenic (human caused) climate change. 

At that time, I had no idea that eight years later, America would elect as its president Donald Trump, a scientific illiterate and the worst president on the environment America has ever had, or will have, for that matter.  In his 2016 campaign, Trump proposed the elimination of EPA and pledged to foster enhanced coal usage.  He speaks lovingly of “clean coal”, a true oxymoron, and denies the scientific reality of anthropogenic climate change.  Under Trump, the EPA is a playground for the coal industry.  Donald Trump is to environmental protection what Al Capone was to public safety. 

Due to my then confidence that substantial progress would be made on the climate change issue, I asserted in 2009 that the major American environmental challenge going forward would be clean water, specifically water infrastructure.  As of the date I completed my tenure at EPA, January 20, 2009, it was estimated that necessary upgrades to water infrastructure nationally would cost in excess of $500 billion.   

The problem with water infrastructure, as I have explained to journalists, is basically political.  Citizens can see and smell air pollution, so they don’t take clean air for granted and are willing to do something about it.  Yet unless and until they actually taste something foul in the water, they take clean water for granted. 

State and local political officials regard water issues as a nuisance.  They see no value in risking their popularity for necessary water upgrades that may be costly.  So more often than not, their response on water issues will be to kick the proverbial can down the road.  

And the history of the clean water issue in Newark is a quintessential example of politics obstructing the enactment and implementation of clean water policy imperatives. 

The current Newark water crisis involves lead leaching from the lead service lines (LSLs) – lead pipes connecting the home to the drinking water main in the street.  The lead does not originate from the source water.  The leaching results from a change in water treatment implemented by Newark in 2012.  Specifically, lead likely started leaching from the LSLs because in that year, the city began reducing the levels of pH in the water, increasing the acidity and thereby the corrosivityof the water.   

The city was adjusting pH levels to reduce cancer-causing compounds like trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids — byproducts of the disinfectants large water systems like Newark use to eliminate harmful microbes.  In order to avoid the increase in the corrosivity of the water, orthophosphate had to be added to the water.  The orthophosphate acts as a coating on the inside of lead service lines to reduce leaching.  The city, however, did not begin to add the orthophosphate until after its corrosion control system was found to be failing in 2017. 

For now, Newark will continue to add orthophosphate to its water and distribute bottled water until the leaching of lead from the pipes is somewhat abated.  The orthophosphate strategy, however, is only a temporary palliative.   

Eventually, the lead service lines will reach a state of total decay and need to be replaced. This will involve public expenditure that will present a painful fiscal choice to New Jersey and Newark officials of either new taxes or painful expenditure cuts in other areas. 

The history of the governmental response to water issues in Newark over the past half century does not give one great confidence in the future.  Among the areas of inaction have been 1) protecting source water from stormwater runoff; 2) upgrading water treatment plants; 3) covering finished water reservoirs; and 4) removing and replacing decayed infrastructure.  On the issue of clean water, the leaders of Newark, past and present, have failed to lead.   

Newark is hardly alone in having to deal with the issue of leaching from lead service lines.  According to the EPA, six million to ten million lead service lines still exist throughout the United States.  There are municipalities like Lansing, Michigan, that have opted to remove and replace them all. This is, however, a most costly undertaking.  According to EPA estimates, the cost of replacing all of America’s lead service lines would run from $16 billion to $80 billion. 

States and municipalities do not have sufficient resources in order to totally finance water infrastructure measures, let alone the replacement of lead service lines.  Partnership with the federal government is necessary.  You will not see this occur during the Trump administration. 

When Donald Trump took office in January, 2017, the nation was faced with a critical need for federal funding of transportation and water infrastructure projects, including the Hudson River Gateway Tunnel project.  The Trump tax cut, which was a complete failure economically, also created deficits which made federal funding of transportation and water projects virtually impossible without new taxes. 

Donald Trump will leave office on January 20, 2021, and a new Democratic administration will take over.  There has been no increase in the federal gas tax since 1993.  According to Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-Oregon), Chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, an increase in the gas tax of 1.5 cents per gallon dedicated to transportation infrastructure could generate financing of $500 billion for transportation projects over the next thirteen years.  Americans who have witnessed the collapse of bridges and roads now understand the need for such a tax increase, and it will be implemented. 

Unfortunately, water infrastructure financing is not so easy.  There is indeed a glaring need for a national water usage tax in order to finance repair and replacement of deteriorated water infrastructure.  There is little or no support for such a measure in the American electorate.  The politics of clean water portends that there will not be public support for such measures until the clean water tragedies of Flint, Michigan and Newark, New Jersey spread to suburban white America. 

Sound environmental protection always requires strong and courageous public leadership.  Going forward in Newark, this will be an absolute clean water policy imperative. 

Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman. 

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