With lead levels in Newark, New Jersey drinking water dangerously high—nearly twice the federal action level—the Newark Education Workers Caucus (NEW Caucus) and Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) today announced plans to sue the City of Newark and the Acting Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) for violating the federal drinking water law. The City’s lead levels are among the highest recorded by a large water system in the United States in recent years, appearing akin to the levels in Flint, Michigan.
In 2017, across the water system, over ten percent of samples collected by the Newark Water Department showed lead levels in excess of 26 parts per billion—nearly twice the federal action level of 15 parts per billion under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Approximately twenty percent of samples exceeded the federal action level overall, with some individual sampling locations jumping to three and even nine times higher. The trend has continued into 2018.
“It's unacceptable that the City and State would consider providing billions of dollars in tax breaks to welcome corporations to Newark, while failing to address health-threatening infrastructure issues like this for its residents,” added Al Moussab, a resident of Newark and the President of NEW Caucus, a group of educators who teach in Newark’s public schools.
“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. NRDC and its partners sued Michigan state officials and City of Flint in 2016 for violating the Safe Drinking Water Act, which resulted in a settlement that requires up to 18,000 water service lines to be replaced in Flint by 2020.
Today, NRDC also sued the City of Newark under New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA) and common law right of access to force the release of public records about the extent and causes of the lead contamination in Newark’s drinking water. In the lawsuit, NRDC claims that the City has been slow to produce documents, has improperly redacted public records, and is illegally withholding information significant to public health and safety, including an inventory of Newark’s lead service lines and documentation of home lead inspections. NRDC filed this suit with pro bono representation from CJ Griffin of Pashman Stein Walder Hayden P.C.
Access to these public records is essential to holding agencies accountable for providing safe drinking water to Newark’s residents.
“This is a serious violation of the public trust. I’m concerned about my health and what this exposure means for my students, since even low levels of lead can impair children’s brain development,” said Yvette Jordan, a Newark resident and member of NEW Caucus. “It’s urgent that the City and NJDEP do more to ensure that when Newark’s residents take a drink of water, we aren’t sipping toxic lead.”
Eleven Newark-based community groups plus state and national organizations with members in Newark sent a letter in September to Newark’s Mayor Baraka and Andrea Hall Adebowale, Director of the City’s Department of Water and Sewer Utilities, expressing concern that Newark has failed to respond comprehensively to lead contamination of its drinking water.
Lead is a heavy metal that can find its way into drinking water when it dissolves or comes off in flakes from lead pipes and plumbing fixtures, especially when the pipes are old or the water is corrosive. There is no safe level of lead exposure.
Pregnant women and children are especially vulnerable; even low levels of lead are associated with serious, irreversible damage to children’s developing brains and nervous systems. Exposure to lead is also associated with miscarriages in pregnant women, as well as fertility problems, adverse cardiovascular and kidney effects, cognitive dysfunction, and elevated blood pressure in adults.
According to a recent survey by Jersey Water Works and New Jersey Future, New Jersey residents consider securing clean, safe drinking water the top environmental priority for the state.
- April 24, 2018: NEW Caucus and NRDC send 60-day notice of intent to sue City of Newark and the Acting Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.
- April 24, 2018: NRDC files a complaint against the City of Newark seeking access to public records under New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act and the common law right of access.
- January 23, 2018: the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection issued a second notice of non-compliance to Newark.
- November 1, 2017: NRDC requests access to public records about extent and causes of lead contamination in Newark’s drinking water.
- October 17, 2017: NRDC requests access to public records about extent and causes of lead contamination in Newark’s drinking water.
- September 13, 2017: Eleven groups sent a letter to Newark Mayor Baraka and Andrea Hall Adebowale, the Director of the Department of Water and Sewer Utilities stating that the City has failed to respond comprehensively to lead contamination of its drinking water.
- August 2, 2017: NRDC requests access to public records about extent and causes of lead contamination in Newark’s drinking water.
- July 2017: The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection issued a notice of non-compliance to Newark, indicating that the City exceeded the federal action level for lead in drinking water.
- Notice of Intent to Sue under Safe Drinking Water Act: https://assets.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/notice-intent-to-sue-sdwa-newark-20180424.pdf
- Complaint Seeking Public Records Pertaining to Lead in Newark's Drinking Water: https://assets.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/verified-complaint-sdwa-newark-20180424.pdf
- Sara Imperiale blog “Groups Announce Intent to Sue for Lead in Drinking Water”: https://www.nrdc.org/experts/sara-imperiale/groups-announce-intent-sue-lead-drinking-water
- Press release from September: https://www.nrdc.org/media/2017/170921
- Recommendations for Newark Residents - Lead in Newark’s Drinking Water: https://www.nrdc.org/resources/lead-newarks-drinking-water
- NRDC: Flint Drinking Water Settlement FAQ: https://www.nrdc.org/stories/flint-drinking-water-settlement-faq
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 3 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world's natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, MT, and Beijing. Visit us at www.nrdc.org and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.