Newark Schools Denied Funds to Filter Lead in Drinking Water

After years of elevated lead levels in Newark Public Schools' drinking water, NRDC and the Education Law Center have sent a letter to New Jersey agencies on behalf of the City's public school children demanding access to funds for a lead filtration system.

In March 2016, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection released a statement indicating that after the Newark Public School district’s annual testing of water taps, 30 schools recorded levels of lead above the federal action level set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency at 15 parts per billion. Since then, annual water testing data from the Newark Public Schools district has been released dating back to 2010, indicating that more than 80 percent of the school facilities assessed had a sample in excess of the federal action level. Almost one-quarter of the tested schools had at least one sample that was more than ten times higher than the action level in that time.

While news of lead-contaminated water throughout the school district made headlines this spring, the City of Newark and its environmental justice communities have struggled for years with the greatest number of lead-poisoned children in New Jersey. According to Joseph Della Fave, Executive Director of the Ironbound Community Corporation, “Children in Newark face multiple health challenges due to cumulative impacts from environmental burdens, including poor air quality causing asthma and lost school time. This lead issue further endangers the health of our children and, as parents have demanded, must be confronted and corrected.”

There is no safe level of exposure to lead and it is especially harmful to children because exposure can cause irreversible damage to developing brains and nervous systems, even at very low levels. As described in an NRDC report cataloguing the national crisis of lead-contaminated water, “Lead can decrease a child’s cognitive capacity, cause behavior problems, and limit the ability to concentrate—all of which, in turn, affect the ability to learn in school. Children with serious lead-related brain impacts are less likely to graduate from high school and more prone to delinquency, teen pregnancy, violent crime, and incarceration.”

The demand letter, sent in collaboration with the Ironbound Community Corporation and other groups in Newark, demands that the New Jersey State Department of Education and Schools Development Authority reverse the agencies' recent determination that a lead filtration system in Newark’s public schools would not be eligible for funding intended to make repairs in schools under State takeover. As affirmed by a line of court cases known as Abbott v. Burke, New Jersey is constitutionally obligated to ensure adequate school facilities for all students attending State-operated schools. This includes funding the complete cost of remediating infrastructure deficiencies, such as plumbing. The Newark Public Schools district has been under State control for more than 20 years.

Despite the State’s obligations and the magnitude of this lead contamination, the Department of Education and Schools Development Authority decided that any and all assessments or remediation efforts for lead would not be eligible for the State funds designated specifically for school infrastructure repairs. These agencies must allow the Newark Public Schools district to request State funding for its lead filtration system. Continued denial of support fails the State’s duty to ensure the health and safety of Newark’s students.

This blog provides general information, not legal advice. If you need legal help, please consult a lawyer in your state.

About the Authors

Sara Imperiale

Staff attorney, Environmental Justice and New York programs

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