What are the facts in the Newark water crisis?
That has been a constant question. From the beginning, misinformation has been one of the exacerbating factors in the growing lead water crisis in the state’s largest city.
Here is what we know, and when we learned it:
This story really began to balloon in 2016. There’s evidence to suggest that the city’s school administrators knew about elevated lead levels in school water supplies as far back as 2004. But, instead of ordering testing to see what impact the lead was having, the administrators at the time issued memos on flushing the system and ordered filtering of the water.
“There has been detected some elevated levels of lead in the water in about 30 of the schools, out of maybe 65 schools that exist here in the city of Newark,” said Mayor Ras Baraka at the time.
Then School Superintendent Chris Cerf admitted that his predecessors kept the prior years’ findings to themselves. “What was not done was to alert the public at a level of detail about the findings from the tests,” he said.
Especially in the wake of the lead water scandal in Flint, Mich., it was enough to enrage parents, who were already distrustful of the state-run school system. Several of them filed suit, naming the city, the superintendent and then-Gov. Chris Christie, who said the situation in Newark “wasn’t a crisis.”
Others disagreed. “We’re living in the United States of America, in the 21st Century, 2016, and we got to worry about drinking water?” said plaintiff Anthony Brown.
Reaching into the broader community, Newark received a notice of noncompliance from the state Department of Environmental Protection for levels of lead in the water that exceed the federal limit of 15 parts per billion. According to state data, in 2017, 20% of Newark’s tap water samples exceeded the federal limit. And more than 10% of homes across Newark had lead levels at nearly twice that level. They city failed the next test for lead six months later and got another notice of noncompliance in January 2018.
Under pressure from big city mayors and legislative leaders, Christie released $10 million in state funds to ramp up testing, remediation and reporting and tightened the state standards to meet federal limits.
“The water in Newark is safe and drinkable,” Baraka declared.
But, like a lot of this story, it’s not that simple.
The city’s residents are served by two water treatment facilities: Wanaque serves the east side of the city, and Pequannock serves the west. Because they’re supplied by open air reservoirs, the water can require disinfecting, which can sometimes mean using harsh chemicals like chlorine. But byproducts of that process can include cancer-causing compounds. In order to counteract those, system operators have, for years, been taking several steps, including lowering the water’s pH level. Lower pH levels mean higher acidity, and that can mean corrosion, causing lead in the service lines — that run from the street and into homes — to leach into the water supply.
The Natural Resources Defense Council sued the city over high lead levels in its water, accusing the city of violating the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. The Council argues in court that residents in Newark’s Wanaque service area are also at risk for lead contamination in their water.
“Two weeks ago, the city of Newark received the results of a lead and copper rules compliance study we had commissioned from an independent engineering firm,” Baraka said in a video posted on the city’s YouTube channel. “The study showed that the corrosion control we’ve used for 20 years in the Pequannock reservoir system to prevent lead from dissolving out of lead service lines is no longer effective.”
The mayor announced that the city would begin distributing PUR water filters to homes with lead service lines that are in the Pequannock region of the city. The report was commissioned after the city flunked several state Department of Environmental Protection lead tests. But emails dating back to February of that year, seven months before this announcement, show the engineering firm, CDM Smith, informing the city that a preliminary review showed the corrosion control “has not been effective.” During that period the mayor was again insisting that the water was safe to drink.
“When you make a statement that the drinking water is not safe, it is yelling fire in a crowded room and is, in fact, an incorrect statement,” he said. “The drinking water is safe.”
That email is included in court documents from a lawsuit filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
With 40,000 water filters already distributed, the city in March trumpets the start of what could be an eight-year lead service line replacement program. Fourteen thousand of those service lines are in the Pequannock section of the city, where the corrosion control stopped working. The lead service line replacement program is citywide and is expected to cost $75 million.
In May, the city also launches a new corrosion control plan at the Pequannock plant, the same regime that has worked well with the Wanaque system.
Testing of the new corrosion control plan reveals filtered water in two of three homes in the Pequannock service area exceeded federal guidelines for lead. Based on those three data points, the EPA urges the city to begin distributing bottled water. The city continues to maintain the filtered water is safe, yet heeding the EPA’s warning, it launches a massive distribution of bottled water.
“I do want to say that the PUR water filters are being used all over the country, all over the state of New Jersey,” Baraka said. “People are using them. They have been working. We had no expectation that they do not work.”
Residents, having heard this before, expressed frustration, fear and confusion.
“I’m not happy that’s for sure … well, we got the filters, we came back, we got all the stuff we were supposed to get and we’re still having a problem,” said Newark resident Joan Knowles.
Baraka meets with Governor Murphy, local, county and state officials to decide on next steps. Afterward, the governor dismissed a call for a state of emergency and insisted the situation was well in hand.
“We had three data points from filters,” Murphy said. “Two of which were negative from a couple of weeks ago, so we’re broadening the testing, working very closely with the EPA, trying to get to the bottom. Was it the filters, what are the facts here?”
The mayor has repeatedly said the water in the Wanaque service area is safe. But that’s also being questioned in court by the NRDC, which says taps on the east side of the city have spiked lead levels, too.
Getting to the facts continues to be difficult. The sample sizes are very small. It will take weeks to complete a more robust study. In the meantime, many residents don’t trust the government. There are turf battles, politics and an administration wary of the press and reluctant to sit for questions.
At stake? The health of thousands of city residents – young and old – not to mention the reputation of a city that has struggled with image problems for decades.