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VP Kamala Harris Highlights Success Of Newark's Lead Pipe Replacement Project

NEWARK, N.J. (CBSNewYork) -- Vice President Kamala Harris was in Newark Friday praising the city for eradicating lead pipes.

As CBS2's Meg Baker reports, the federal government plans to make it a national model.

Harris met with community leaders in Newark to highlight what the city has accomplished keeping residents safe from lead poisoning.

A line of invited guests formed early outside the Training Recreation Center in Newark to be part of the event, a discussion and celebration with Harris to highlight the success and completion of Newark's Lead Service Line Replacement Project.

"It's an historic event for the city of Newark," said David LaFrance, CEO of American Water Works Association.

LaFrance came from Denver for the event, and says other communities across the country will now look at Newark as a model.

"The concern is not the water itself, but the water going over a lead service line. That's the line in the middle of the street, into your house," LaFrance said. "It was a big challenge here and you've accomplished it." 

In less than three years, the lead service lines to more than 18,000 homes were replaced.

"What this does in terms of impeding God given capacity of our children to learn and thrive, it is a public health issue. It's an equity issue. It's an issue of education. It's an issue of whether or not we're willing to invest in future in terms of investing in our communities," Harris said.

The federal bipartisan infrastructure bill will help other cities do the same.

Newark removed more than 23,000 lead service pipes in two and a half years with funding from Essex County, at no cost to the homeowner.

"This was a 10 year project," said Kareem Adeem, director of Newark Water and Sewer. "We didn't have a decade. We wanted to show we could do things efficiently, effectively, and immediately. And that's what we did."

Newark leaders say communication with the community was key. New legislation allowed access on the private property to get it done. Newark residents were trained and hired to do the work.

"It is truly expensive to be poor, not have the money, support, resources to change things that need to be changed. Cities all over America struggle with this. That is why this administration's infrastructure bill is so incredibly important. Billions of dollars given to cities to pull lead service lines out," said Mayor Ras Baraka. "I wish it was done three years ago, but hey. They get to benefit from work we've done here in the city of Newark."

Although this federal funding comes too late to aid Newark in their lead pipe replacement, Gov. Phil Murphy says it will help other towns.

"It has been estimated there's 350,000 lead service lines in New Jersey alone," Murphy said.

Harris, along with Administrator Michael Regan with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, say they will be promoting this model.

"We have resources to replicate what was done in Newark all over country," Regan said.

"Now other cities and other families will benefit from the work you did right here," Harris said.

Leaders agreed that clean drinking water is a human right that should not depend on one's economic status.

Lead poisoning can cause kidney, brain, and nervous system damage.

According to the White House, up to 10 million American households and 400,000 schools and child care centers currently lack safe drinking water. That includes many in the Garden State.

In fact, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave New Jersey a D+ on its infrastructure report card. Leaders are eager to turn that grade around.

Mitch Bernard of the Natural Resources Defense Council released the following statement:

Newark's historic accomplishment would not have been possible without the dogged and heroic resolve of a group of public school teachers and community members, who refused to settle for anything less than safe drinking water for the children of Newark. The community's drive, combined with laborers' skill and the city's determination to get the job done quickly, has set a new standard for cities trying to replace toxic lead pipes.

Lead has plagued our nation for more than a century, but by removing all its lead water pipes at no cost to residents, Newark demonstrates we are within reach of fixing this curse, making generations of children healthier. 

Our vision is that every family in the country will be able to drink water free from lead contamination. Funding from the new federal infrastructure law, plus we hope additional resources from the Build Back Better Act and a strengthened EPA Lead and Copper Rule can make this dream a reality.

Meg Baker and John Dias contributed to this report. Editor's note: This story was first published Feb. 11.

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