Newark residents concerned about health, outraged over city’s “cover up” of lead water crisis

4 mins read

The looming water crisis comes to a head. Now residents demand answers and scramble for safe drinking water.

This week, Newark town halls and public meetings about the water crisis in the city spill over with upset residents demanding explanations from Mayor Ras Baraka.

Just months before and throughout Baraka’s second term of his Administration, the city released literature insisting that the drinking water “was not an emergency.” However, last Friday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency instructed Newark city officials in a letter, to advise residents to use bottled water due to high levels of lead found in their assessments.

In light of the EPA’s discovery, a group of protestors held a press conference on the steps of city hall this week. Community advocate Donna Jackson said, “Our demands are this. One, that the mayor steps down. Two, that we find the source of the contamination.”

“We’re in one of the biggest environmental crises in American history,” commented Kevin Jenkins on popular local online program, The Eric Dawson Show.

“This is ridiculous,” opined Terra who lives in the South Ward. “When I grew up, Newark had some of the best water. Now it’s not safe and they’re not telling us the truth. I live in an old building and I know my water’s bad, but I couldn’t get a filter.”

Even if filters were in supply, the feds discovered through a second round of tests that the Pur filters passed out by the city were ineffective. Many residents didn’t need the EPA to know that.

“It’s cheap plastic,” described Brandon whose mother was issued a filter last year. “We had to remove it because after some months, when you turn the [faucet] on, water goes everywhere. It’s a mess. I went online and looked at the map showing the areas with lead, and my whole block is lit up.”

Getting to the source

As residents scramble for safe drinking options, others are tracing the flows of information to where the issue began. “The irony is [Ras Baraka] didn’t have to cover this up,” said resident Nina Pilar. “He didn’t cause the issue.”

High levels of lead have been a known problem since the Cory Booker Administration, but much of it was swept under the rug during his time as mayor. Several months after Booker left local office to serve as a US Senator in 2014, a memo passed around schools alerting teachers to flush out water faucets due to possible contamination.

Later, it was discovered that the water source Newark owns, The Pequannock Watershed, was not tested regularly under the Booker Administration. Linda Watkins Brashear, who oversaw the watershed took over $1 million in kickbacks from contractors in a tradeoff in which they did not have to work or received ballooned payments for little service. In her tenure, as well, the water was largely left untreated. She was indicted and found guilty and is now serving an 8-year sentence.

Since the watershed debacle, faucets at over 30 schools have been shut down due to testing for high lead levels. Terra told Ark Republic that her son’s school instructed her to buy him a water bottle and fill it each morning.

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

In 2017, Adishetu, a mother of two boys said that her eldest son tested for high levels of lead. “I was freaking out because they really don’t do anything. They just test to see if [his levels] go down.”

Adishetu lives in East Newark where currently they’ve added orthophosphate to the water to inhibit lead and other corrosive material to leak from the pipes. Kareem Adeem, the director of public works for the city said orthophosphate is a safe “food grade” and an “additive . . . that is used internationally.”

Some people disagree with Adeem. “The administration is promising a short term fix of the lead mains yet the controversial, carcinogenic substance they intend to use, that they are currently referring to as ‘food-grade,’ won’t even get to the pipes because of the inches thick toxic sediment that is blocking the pipes like a clogged artery. It’s a useless step. And they know it,” said Pilar. 

To quell further uproar, Baraka has been putting out a series of talks and messaging. In one video, he appears on a porch stoop with two officials. One of them is Adeem who is not an engineer and carries limited experience overseeing citywide public utilities.

Said Baraka. “My wife is almost 27 weeks . . . she’s been using this filter for a long time . . . so we bet our own safety and life that this filter is working. Plus, you know everybody’s using a filter. Flint, everybody across the state of New Jersey, the nation is using Pur water filters, you know,  we have no expectation that it didn’t work and we still don’t know if it worked or not.”

However, a source who asked to remain anonymous, told Ark Republic that Baraka frequents, Aqua Fit Water Bar and Luxury Gym, an aquatic watering hole on Central Avenue for his water supply. “He goes daily or sends his detail,” said the source.

To remedy the growing panic throughout the city, distribution centers have been handing out cases of bottled water donated by the state. But, soon after, it was discovered that the best buy date expired. City officials followed up with responses saying that water cannot expire in meetings reported residents. 

“They gave out expired water thinking no one would notice. There is an expiration date – not because of the water but because the plastic after a certain time will break down into particles that are known carcinogens (which cause cancer),” argued Nina.

While collecting water, other residents are getting tested for lead levels. “I haven’t taken my son to get tested, but I will. He has eczema. We had it under control, but his skin started getting irritated. I just want people to fix this,” lamented Terra.

Kaia Shivers covers diaspora, news and features.

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