To drink or not to drink: Advocacy group prepares to sue Newark over elevated lead levels in water

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As Newark, N.J. grows, it must deal with a serious dilemma: water.

For the past two weeks, Newark, N.J residents have been debating if they should drink from their taps. On one hand, the City of Newark says that the water is fine. On the other hand, Natural Resources Defense Council, (NRDC), the organization that sued the city of Flint, Michigan for their water contamination, says otherwise.

According to NRDC, Newark’s lead levels are some of the highest reported in large water systems in the country, and are at the same levels as lead testing results in Flint.

“Newark’s lead levels are shockingly high. Safe drinking water should not be a luxury. Access to safe drinking water is particularly important in low-income communities of color, where residents often face multiple sources of exposure and stressors on their health from environmental burdens,” said Sara Imperiale, an NRDC Environmental Justice attorney in a press release from organization.

In addition, the NRDC states that the lead in Newark’s drinking water is two times the national “action level,” which occurs when the amount of lead in the municipality’s water requires officials to acknowledge the issue then take corrective measures.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports, “If the action level for lead is exceeded, the system must also inform the public about steps they should take to protect their health and may have to replace lead service lines under their control.”

Mayor Ras Baraka, City of Newark

The city responded to the accusations made by NRDC in a statement:

An organization made absolutely and outrageously false statements about Newark’s water. The truth is that the water supplied by the City is safe to drink. Our water fully complies with federal and state regulations.

The City’s water is NOT contaminated with lead. The only high lead readings were taken inside older 1 and 2 family homes that have lead pipes leading from the city’s pure water into those homes. The city is helping those homeowners to replace their pipes.

On several occasions, Baraka has said, “Newark’s water is absolutely safe to drink.” Most recently, in a mayoral debate between he and his top competitor and current councilmember, Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins. Baraka is running for a second term in an election scheduled for May 8.

Read how a Newark hip hop emcee is now running for a council seat in his hometown

NRDC claims that the Baraka Administration has not taken the proper steps to remedy the issue, nor have they answered repeated requests to comply with EPA regulations.

In July 2017, the NRDC issued an order of non-compliance to Baraka and Andrea Hall Adebowale, the Director of the Department of Water and Sewer Utilities. Then in September 2017, eleven groups of residents, along with the NRDC, sent a letter to Baraka and Adebowale addressing their frustrations with the city’s failure to respond to the contamination.

With no reply to any of their initial or subsequent requests, the NRDC and Newark Education Workers (New Caucus) Caucus sent an intent to sue in April 2018.

Newark’s Water Supply

As one of the oldest US cities established by European colonialists, Newark’s water systems are also outdated. According to the Cultural Landscape Report, Treatment and Management Plan for Branch Brook Park in Newark, NJ by the Branch Brook Park Alliance, “A private company, the Newark Aqueduct Co., was formed in 1800 to supply water, initially through hollowed wooden logs, later through iron pipes, first to Market Street and then beyond.”

Finally, through a 1934 rehabilitation effort, the city changed to steel pipes. From that time forward, there has been no record of any major overhaul of pipes throughout the entire city.

Thus, like many other cities, an issue with pipes is that they are old. A report by the American Society of Civil Engineers says that “Many of those pipes [in US cities] were laid in the early to mid‐20th century with a lifespan of 75‐100 years.” According to the agency, it will take about 200 years to replace America’s pipes with an estimated cost of $1 trillion.

Baraka said in 2016, it could take roughly $1 billion to totally upgrade Newark’s water system.

Public Opinion

Since the announcement of the lawsuit and findings in water levels, city officials have refuted the claims of NRDC through robocalls, a press conference and sponsored posts on social media.

In the comments section of the municipality’s Facebook page, there has been a plethora of differing opinions from residents. Overwhelmingly, however, Newarkers express levels of distrust in the Administration’s account on the matter.

Newark’s water dilemma points to an even bigger problem: America’s infrastructure is failing.

Kaia Shivers contributed to this article.

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Yolanda Aguilera focuses on culture, politics, policy and Latinidad.
Kaia Niambi Shivers covers diaspora, news and features.

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