Newark, State Officials Sued Over High Lead Levels in Drinking Water
Two groups sued Newark and New Jersey state officials today, charging that their violations of federal law have resulted in dangerous lead levels in Newark’s drinking water. The lawsuit, brought by the Newark Education Workers Caucus (NEW Caucus) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), would force city and state officials to address repeated, systemic failures to follow federal rules designed to protect the public from dangerous lead exposure. Levels of the toxic metal in Newark’s drinking water are some of the highest recently recorded by a large water system in the nation.
“Access to safe water should be a basic right for everyone. 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,” said Al Moussab, a resident of Newark and the president of the NEW Caucus.
“City and state officials are failing to take the steps required under the law to protect Newark residents from lead in their drinking water.” said Claire Woods, an attorney with NRDC. “Newark’s water is corrosive, causing lead pipes to release too much of this toxic chemical into the drinking water flowing to residents’ taps. If it takes filing a lawsuit to end violations of federal drinking water law, we’ll do it.”
Today’s lawsuit alleges that city and state officials are violating the Safe Drinking Water Act, the federal drinking water law, in multiple ways. The officials have failed to set and implement water quality and treatment standards to ensure that Newark’s corrosive water does not cause lead to flake or leach from water pipes into the drinking water to residents’ taps. Additionally, the city is failing to comply with federal requirements for assessing the materials within the system, monitoring and sampling tap water for lead, and notifying the public about water-testing results.
“Newark has a drinking water problem that threatens the health of our children, but the city would rather deny the problem than get to work fixing it. We need to move beyond the crisis so our community can heal from years of exposure to high levels of lead, especially the damage inflicted on our children,” said Yvette Jordan, a Newark resident and member of NEW Caucus.
Despite assertions by Newark officials that the city’s water is “safe,” the City’s own tap water sampling shows dangerously high levels of lead in many locations. In 2017, across the water system, over ten percent of samples collected had 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, including one recent result as high as 182 parts per billion – more than 12 times the action level.
The lead levels in the drinking water are so high that the State environmental agency—the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection—issued notices of noncompliance to the City of Newark in June 2017 and January 2018. New Jersey has estimated that there are approximately 22,100 homes in Newark with lead service lines lines (lead pipes that bring water from the water main under the street to a residence), an indication that lead-contaminated drinking water is not limited to just a few households.
“NRDC and our partners have long tried to engage the City on this public health crisis with less adversarial means. In each instance, the City 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,” said Sara Imperiale, an environmental justice attorney with NRDC.
On April 24, 2018, NRDC and the NEW Caucus sent a 60-day notice of intent to sue the city and city and state officials for violating the Safe Drinking Water Act and simultaneously filed a complaint against the City for failure to provide public records under the New Jersey Open Public Records Act. In a hearing on June 22, 2018, the court found in favor of NRDC, and ordered Newark to provide the undisclosed public records regarding lead contamination within 20 days. The judge found the City engaged in a pattern and practice of unlawfully withholding public records.
There is no safe level of lead exposure. Pregnant women and children are most at risk: even low levels of lead are associated with serious, irreversible damage to developing brains and nervous systems. Exposure to lead is also associated with fertility problems, adverse cardiovascular and kidney effects, cognitive dysfunction, and elevated blood pressure in otherwise healthy adults.
The City’s high drinking water lead levels are especially concerning because they compound long-standing concerns about children’s exposure to toxic levels of lead in Newark. For years, Newark has had the greatest number of lead-poisoned children in New Jersey, while 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, where residents often face multiple sources of exposure and stressors on their health from environmental burdens.
NRDC: Newark drinking water crisis (including legal documents)
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.