Newark, N.J., has moved past the halfway mark of a 30-month, $120-million lead water service line replacement program, completing more than 9,100 of an expected 18,000 individual lines—and continuing a 1,100-per-month pace even amid the coronavirus outbreak, officials say.

The city’s water and sewer department is also set to launch a digital platform to help manage post-replacement water testing.

Newark’s water crisis gushed in six years ago with tests showing excessive lead levels— topping the federal limit of 15 parts per billion—in parts of the city-run system.

The city was sued by the Natural Resources Defense Council over alleged violations of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency informing it that the corrosion inhibitor it had been using in lead pipes in its Pequannock water system had not been effective since early 2017.

The city’s response shifted at several junctures, starting out with corrosion prevention upgrades and distribution of water filters to residents, but the federal government later found those efforts deficient. Tests as recent as last year showed levels above 50 ppb in some samples.

The starts and stops led to the March 2019 launch of a voluntary $75-million program to attack the biggest culprit—lead service lines about the diameter of a quarter connecting city water mains to individual properties, including portions belonging to property owners.

Despite capping costs to owners at $1,000, only 750 had replaced their lead lines with copper pipes by summer—not surprising in a city where 75% of 280,000 residents are renters, says Kareem Adeem, department director. “In some cases, we couldn’t find the property owners,” he says.

Last summer, Newark expanded the program with a $120-million loan to make lead line replacement mandatory but also cover the $5,000 to $10,000 replacement costs. That effort began last fall with CDM Smith, Cambridge, Mass. as program engineer and Underground Utilities, Linden, N.J., and Newark-based Roman E&G as contractors.

“We’re doing a block-by-block approach – we’re on one block for two to three days,” he says. “We’re now doing 95 to 110 a day, and it’s been a mild winter.”

Coronavirus shutdowns haven’t harmed the schedule, with crews adding personal protective gear and switching to digital communications with residents, Adeem says.

Meanwhile, a digital audit and customer service system from vendor 120Water is taking over post-replacement communication with residents to bolster lead test kit distribution and tracking efforts, he says.

The platform comes online in May, says Megan Glover, 120Water’s CEO. “A lot of these lead programs need help at the last mile of compliance,” she says. “We help them with operational efficiency.”