Newark is investing $23 million to upgrade an aging water treatment facility that was at the center of its lead contamination problem five years ago.

The long-awaited fixes to the Pequannock Water Treatment Plant aim to improve the way the city cleans its water and prevent the type of crisis that thrust Newark into the national spotlight in 2019 when it was forced to distribute bottled water to 14,000 households. The upgrades build on the city’s $190 million investment to replace more than 23,000 lead pipes outside of the facility, running under streets into people’s homes.

“You're going to have another process in place to make the water even purer,” said Kareem Adeem, Newark’s Director of Water and Sewer, after a groundbreaking ceremony on Monday. “Those efficiencies will help manage and run the plant better.”

The Pequannock plant in West Milford pumps water to more than 300,000 customers and opened in 1989. When lead levels first spiked in Newark in 2017, city officials traced the problem to a treatment failure at the facility. A process known as “corrosion control” — which prevented water from becoming too acidic and corroding old lead pipes — was no longer effective. Water pumping into people’s old homes was eating away at old lead pipes.

A filter bed, as seen on April 11th, 2022, in the process of backwashing the dirty water that gets funneled to another room through the center trough at the Pequannock Water Treatment Plant. This filter bed will be upgraded by 2023.

Workers clearing out a filter at the Pequannock Water Treatment Plant that will be replaced with a new system to more effectively filter the water coming in from the reservoir, April 11th, 2022.

The city changed its corrosion control treatment in 2019, and this year finished replacing every known lead service line that pumps water from underground water mains to homes. But the newly announced investment addresses longstanding problems with the plant’s outdated filtration system that likely contributed to the city’s lead problem, according to reporting in NJ Advance Media. It also reported that the upgrades would improve the taste of the water.

“As critical as it is to remove sources of lead exposure, like those that are present in lead service lines, we can control for lead exposure if we're investing in treatment and maintenance and monitoring on the other end,” Shawn LaTourette, commissioner for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, told Gothamist.

“Let's not wait for everything to be on fire,” he added, praising Newark's investment. “It takes political will and courage. It takes money and commitment. None of these things fix themselves overnight.”

The wastewater basins at the Pequannock Water Treatment ant that contain the impurities and other matter filtered out of the reservoir water, April 11th, 2022.

The lab at the Pequannock Water Treatment Plant where workers test the water at different stages of the treatment process, April 11th, 2022.

During a tour on Monday, facility superintendent Kevin Greer showed off the plant’s filter beds, testing lab and wastewater basins. Greer has worked at the plant for 12 years and said it was exciting to see so many upgrades.

Inside the facility, workers cleaned out one of the filters that will eventually house new materials, like carbon, that help remove impurities from the water coming through the valves. Employees also ran a backwash, when the dirty water from the filters rushes through a middle trough.

“It's amazing — because we have a pretty clean supply — how much metal accumulates and impurities accumulate,” said Jerry Notte, the plant’s operator as he looked at the backwashing process.

Notte told Gothamist the improvements should be complete by 2023 — they include installing 86 new valves that pump water in and out of the facility, a backwash system that flushes out contaminants and a modern system to measure the water’s pH and other parameters.

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and other city officials break ground on $23 million in improvements to the Pequannock Water Treatment Plant in West Milford on April 11th, 2022.

He said the changes will increase the plant’s processing capacity from 35 million gallons per day to 60 million gallons per day, which would potentially allow it to serve more residents in the state.

Newark will use a state loan to finance the fixes, but Mayor Ras Baraka told Gothamist he hopes money from the federal bipartisan infrastructure bill will cover the debt.

“Everybody's willing to help us get it done, which is, you know, different than it was before. You felt like you were doing it on your own,” he said. “I think we have an opportunity to get more done than we thought we would.”