Newark Drinking Water Crisis
What's At Stake
Fighting for safe drinking water in Newark, New Jersey.
Alarmed by high levels of lead in Newark’s drinking water, and after repeated unsuccessful attempts to resolve the issue without litigation, the Newark Education Workers (NEW) Caucus and NRDC filed a citizen suit against the City of Newark and New Jersey state officials in June 2018 to secure safe drinking water for Newark residents. No money damages were sought—just a solution.
Major warning signs appeared in 2016 in the form of record-high lead levels in the drinking water in Newark schools. In 2017, after the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) required Newark to monitor lead in its drinking water more extensively, Newark reported that lead levels were above the federal action level—an inevitable result of the longtime neglect of the water system that had been identified by Newark’s outside engineering consultants. In 2018 and 2019, Newark’s lead levels rose to some of the highest of any major city in the country. But through the efforts of NEW Caucus and NRDC—and a significant commitment of resources by the city, Essex County, and the state—substantial progress has been made since the NEW Caucus and NRDC filed their lawsuit.
By January 2021, Newark was well on its way to removing over 18,000 lead service lines at no direct cost to residents, in a program that could become a model for other cities nationwide. At the same time, Newark’s new water treatment, designed to minimize corrosion of lead from pipes, has begun to reduce lead levels. The city has also provided at-home water filters to about 40,000 households. In the wake of this progress, NEW Caucus, NRDC, Newark, and the DEP reached a proposed settlement agreement, which a federal court approved on January 26, 2021.
The settlement agreement requires the city to continue its rapid pace of fully replacing lead service lines from the water main pipe to people’s homes. It also requires Newark to continue to provide free water testing to residents, as well as free filters and replacement cartridges to eligible homes during the term of the agreement. Newark must engage in extensive public education to emphasize the importance of residents properly installing, using, and replacing filter cartridges because of the health risks of using expired or improperly installed cartridges.
In light of the enormous economic burden on Newark from the COVID-19 pandemic, NRDC decided not to seek an award of fees and costs it expended during this litigation.
Nationwide, an estimated six to ten million lead pipes remain underground, delivering water to people’s homes every day. Communities seeking to increase protections for public health, especially children’s health, should heed Newark’s example and replace all of their lead service lines as quickly as possible.
Reporting, expert commentary, analysis, and more.
Lead damages children’s brains, which is why our group of public school teachers brought this case to secure safe drinking water for families in Newark.
To figure out if your home might have a lead service line, it helps if you know when your house was built, when your property first got water service, and when your house was previously renovated.
Water sampling can provide an alternative but less conclusive approach for identifying lead service lines.