Newark’s lead line replacement program could stand as a model for others

The lead contamination problem in Newark’s drinking water appears to be nearing a resolution that few could have foreseen in 2018.
At the center of the crisis was Newark Water and Sewer director Kareem Adeem.
“I don’t feel that I needed any vindication, personally,” Adeem says.
As the director, Adeem must drive across the city checking on the crews who have been replacing the lead water lines. He says the spring in his step is only from the success Newark has had in addressing a water crisis that drew national attention.
“We’re leading the nation in removing lead service lines. I always thought this was going to be a 10-year process. Now we’re looking 26, 27 months later. We’re done,” he says.
When the crisis erupted over the high levels of lead in the water back in 2018, Adeem, who was newly appointed by Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, found himself at the center. Many of the critics questioning the city government’s handling of the situation quickly blamed him. They cited his lack of an engineering degree and his time spent in federal prison more than a decade ago for drug distribution.
But Adeem has spent 30 years in the department, rising from the bottom to the top.
“I started as a laborer – from a repairman, to a plumber, to an equipment operator, truck driver, supervisor general, superintendent, assistant director of operations,” Adeem says.
His time in the trenches gave him something those with more formal education may have overlooked – the idea that changing thousands of service lines was not just necessary, but doable.
“It has allowed me to understand that we can do what people said was impossible. We can remove lead service lines. Because I was one of the laborers that was removing them 30 years ago,” he says.
Thousands of holes in the ground later, and those who were initially criticizing Adeem were now praising him. Other experts are now calling Newark a possible national model for lead abatement.
As the lead line replacement program begins to wind down, Newark’s water’s level of lead has been within acceptable levels for federal regulations for the last three monitoring periods.