NRDC and NEW Caucus Take Newark to Court Over Dangerous Lead Levels

The city’s drinking water crisis is putting residents’ health at risk.
Credit: Bryan Anselm for NRDC

The city’s drinking water crisis is putting residents’ health at risk.

Despite receiving a 60-day notice of intent to sue, the City of Newark and state and city officials have failed to act on the dangerously high levels of lead in Newark’s drinking water. So NRDC and the Newark Education Workers Caucus (NEW Caucus), a group of public school educators, are moving forward and taking city and state officials to court.

“Newark’s water is corrosive, causing lead pipes to release too much of this toxic chemical into the drinking water flowing to residents’ taps,” says Claire Woods, an attorney at NRDC, which today filed the lawsuit, alleging that city and state officials’ violations of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act have resulted in dangerous lead levels in Newark’s drinking water. “If it takes filing a lawsuit to end violations of federal drinking water law, we’ll do it.”

Levels of the toxic metal in Newark’s drinking water are some of the highest recently recorded by a large water system in the country. In 2017, across the water system, more than 10 percent of samples had lead levels above 26 parts per billion, nearly twice the federal action level of 15 parts per billion. The trend has continued into 2018, including one recent result as high as 182 parts per billion—more than 12 times the action level.  

There have been long-standing concerns about children’s exposure to toxic levels of lead in Newark. For years, the city has had the greatest number of lead-poisoned children in New Jersey, and in 2016, testing revealed 30 public schools with elevated water lead levels. Access to safe drinking water is particularly important in low-income communities of color like Newark, where residents often face multiple health risks from environmental burdens.

Pregnant women and children are most at risk, as even low levels of lead are associated with serious, irreversible damage to developing brains and nervous systems. Lead exposure is also linked to fertility issues, cardiovascular and kidney problems, cognitive dysfunction, and elevated blood pressure in otherwise healthy adults.

“NRDC and our partners have long tried to engage the city on this public health crisis with less adversarial means,” says Sara Imperiale, an environmental justice attorney at NRDC. “In each instance, it has been slow to act and quick to provide evasive non-answers, all while assuring the public repeatedly that the water is safe to drink. That’s why we’ve filed our complaint today.”

“Access to safe water should be a basic right for everyone,” says Al Moussab, a Newark resident and the president of NEW Caucus. “However, for many working-class people, it’s not. By joining this lawsuit, we hope to hold the city and state governments accountable for providing safe drinking water to every home and school in Newark.”