Federal, state and Newark officials have reached an agreement for expanding the testing of drinking water for lead beyond the handful of results that showed tap filters the city distributed were not adequately removing the toxic contaminant.
Late Friday afternoon, the federal Environmental Protection Agency said its scientists had helped officials in New Jersey “develop a robust sampling plan that will provide representative results regarding the occurrence of lead in … Newark’s drinking water system.”
The first round of sampling was to start that day, the EPA said in its statement.
“The Agency intends to put an additional team of experts on the ground in Newark as early as next week,” the EPA said. “While there, EPA will continue to guide and advise the City regarding ongoing sampling efforts. The Agency will also acquire samples for analysis by EPA laboratories.”
Earlier, Mayor Ras Baraka and Kareem Adeem, the acting director of Newark’s Water and Sewer Utilities, took to Instagram to discuss the city’s response and mentioned the agreement in passing.
“We just agreed on some procedures and protocols of how we’ll expand the testing parameters,” Adeem said, as he sat with Baraka on the front walk of the mayor’s house.
They did not provide details on what form the expanded testing would take or how extensive it would be.
State officials on Friday said discussions with EPA officials were continuing and were focused on the scope of the survey. DEP Commissioner Catherine McCabe traveled to Washington on Thursday to meet with EPA officials and devise a statistically valid test of how well the filters, manufactured by PUR, are working in Newark.
The governor’s office called the meeting “productive,” adding, “We are counting on the EPA as a partner as we move forward to address the situation in the city of Newark,” they said.
The city distributed 38,000 PUR filters after officials discovered lead was leaching into drinking water from corroded service lines and could be affecting 14,000 homes that connect to the Pequannock water plant.
The filters are supposed to remove more than 99% of lead, but recent tests of filtered water at two of three homes showed lead levels at 50 and 57.9 parts per billion — more than triple the EPA’s action level of 15 parts per billion.
Last weekend, the EPA ordered the city to distribute bottled water and said that significantly more extensive testing would be needed to get real answers about the scope of the contamination.
“We have to test more of it,” Baraka said. “So we’re going to test more and more and more, and while we test these water filters in a bunch of homes, we want to make sure that you’re still safe so we’re going to give you water until we finish testing that. And the testing should take us at least two to three weeks to figure out at least preliminarily where we are with this.”
Water from the city’s Pequannock system is also pumped to Newark’s neighbors Bloomfield, Belleville, part of Nutley and all of Pequannock Township in Morris County. None of the other towns received bottled drinking water directives.
Bloomfield recently sent five filtered water samples from homes to be tested.
“So far, we got two tests back that were good,” said Mayor Michael Venezia on Friday. “Waiting on the other three. Garden State Labs had to send [the other samples] to a subcontractor.”
Meanwhile, state officials say they have sent their entire stock of emergency water to Newark. Water distribution continued Friday, but officials said they would be looking for help in the future.
“Neither the city nor the state has sufficient emergency water supplies nor financial resources to continue supplying bottled water to so many residents indefinitely,” McCabe wrote in a Aug. 14 letter to the EPA.
Officials have also called on corporations for help.
“We have communicated to both the Governor of New Jersey and the Mayor of Newark that we are donating emergency drinking water. As a long-standing member of the Newark community, we are proud to do our part to support our neighbors and friends,” said Samantha Roth, Anheuser-Busch’s director of corporate communications in an email.
During their front-stoop discussion, Baraka and Adeem sought to allay concerns about the water issues, noting that the lead problem does not affect restaurants or most large buildings, like the Prudential Center. They also noted that the pipes that have been identified as contributing to the problem are small bore, mostly the ones leading to people’s homes.
They also said the city’s reputation was suffering from the dissemination of inaccurate information.
“They’re creating hysteria in the city,” Baraka said. “What happens if people don’t go to restaurants? They lose money. Restaurants lose money, they close. People lose they jobs. People lose their jobs — we stop getting tax money for the city. People don’t own homes. You take the city backward.”