Officials may have finally acknowledged the drinking water crisis in this New Jersey city, but that hasn’t stopped them from misleading residents. Here are the facts.
The city of Newark’s response to its drinking water crisis has slowly evolved from outright denial to grudging acknowledgment over the past two years. Under the pressure of ongoing litigation, city officials have finally announced plans to provide water filters to some residents. But many questions remain as the city continues to deny, delay, and mislead its residents about the crisis. It’s time to tell the truth about the Newark, New Jersey, drinking water crisis.
“The crisis…is the infrastructure.”
—Mayor Ras Baraka, on The Takeaway (05:12) on WNYC, January 23, 2019
Newark officials have tried to exclusively blame old infrastructure for the drinking water crisis in public statements and on the city’s official website since at least April 2018. But records show the city’s own consultant, CDM Smith, informed officials in February 2018 that the water treatment performed by the city at one of Newark’s two treatment plants was not effective, causing widespread corrosion of lead pipes and plumbing through many parts of Newark. The city’s failure to control corrosion, a process that, when done correctly, should prevent lead from flaking into tap water, is central to the crisis of lead in Newark’s drinking water.
“Dangerously high levels of lead are entering homes and our children's blood through lead service lines despite the fact that any level of lead can damage the developing brains of young children.”
—Mayor Ras J. Baraka in an open letter to President Trump, January 14, 2018
Newark’s mayor has finally shifted from denial to calling the city’s water crisis what it is: a “true emergency.” After reporting lead levels reaching a 17-year high at the end of 2018, city officials must act to bring Newark’s water system into compliance with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. Until its tap water is safe to drink, the city must respond to the immediate threat of harm to residents by providing an alternative water supply and a robust public education program.
“Newark is offering free water testing upon request.”
—City of Newark Lead Service Line Replacement Program website
The City of Newark claims it has long offered free water testing to any resident who asks. Residents interested in getting their water tested by the city have been instructed to call 973-733-6303 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
But for more than a year, NRDC has repeatedly heard from Newark residents that their requests go unanswered. To better understand where and how often this occurs, NRDC scientist Yukyan Lam mapped the number of Newark homes that requested water testing from the city and have not received a response (represented by red dots) against the number of homes that requested testing and received a result, which was then provided to NRDC (represented by blue dots). This map, which covers the period from January 2018 through November 2, 2018, demonstrates that resident testing requests that remain unanswered by the city vastly outnumber the residents who have requested testing and received a result. (The responses are based on data received to date; there is a possibility that some test results have not yet been provided by the city or state to NRDC.)
“Newark is not Flint.”
—Newark Mayor Ras J. Baraka in an interview with reporters, November 2, 2018
Newark’s mayor bristles at comparisons to the notorious situation in Flint, Michigan. But what’s happening in Newark right now does present some parallels to the crisis that unfolded in Flint. Most significantly, the two cities have among the highest tap water lead levels of any large city in the country; city officials repeatedly denied they had a significant lead problem, even though their own data showed dangerously elevated levels; and it took a citizen lawsuit to get officials to start taking action to protect residents from lead in their drinking water.
“Water has not contributed in any significant way to the elevated lead levels in our children’s blood.”
—Mayor Baraka in an interview with CBS News, November 1, 2018
Newark officials are misleading residents by downplaying the impact of city water on the elevated lead levels in children’s blood. A well-established body of science identifies drinking water lead as making a significant contribution to blood lead levels. Newark has more children with elevated blood lead levels than any other city in the state, and according to New Jersey’s Department of Health, “about 13 percent of [children with elevated blood lead levels] live in Newark, yet the city comprises only 3.8 percent of the state’s children.” There is no safe threshold of lead exposure.
“Lead lines were banned in 1986, so if your home was built after 1986, you’re relatively OK.”
—Mayor Baraka in a town hall meeting, October 15, 2018
Newark denies the problem extends to homes built after 1986. But some homes built after that year were constructed without excavating and replacing the preexisting lead service line that connect the home to the water main. Even if a home was built more recently, it may have elevated lead levels in its drinking water. No matter the age of a home, residents should ask the city for a free inspection to know whether it has a lead service line.
“Newark’s water has always been the best and safest water in the state, and probably in the country.”
—Mayor Baraka at a press conference announcing a program to provide free water filters to residents with lead service lines or plumbing, October 12, 2018
For nearly two years, city officials denied that Newark’s drinking water was contaminated with lead. Yet the city’s own testing found Newark’s water has some of the highest tap water lead levels found in recent years in any large U.S. city. Newark’s drinking water has had as much as 26 times the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s limit for lead, due to the city’s failure to adequately treat its water to prevent service line corrosion. Still, city officials’ first response was to deny the problem, claiming that the city’s water “fully complies with federal and state regulations.”
“There’s nothing wrong with the source water that Newark has at all.”
—Mayor Baraka at a press conference, October 12, 2018
Newark’s mayor is misleading residents by saying that the city’s source water is safe. People don’t drink from the reservoirs that serve the city. The problem is that Newark has not adequately treated its water. As a result, lead is leaching from lead-containing pipes, solder, or fixtures and flowing to people’s taps. Residents rely on that tap water for drinking and cooking.
"The corrosion control presently being used has not been effective in various parts of the North Ward, parts of the South Ward, the West Ward, and the Central Ward. The East Ward has been unaffected."
—Mayor Baraka at a press conference, October 12, 2018
Newark officials claim the East Ward of the city is unaffected. But homes in that ward, supplied by the Wanaque Reservoir, have also tested high for lead levels. Sampling results have reached 25.9, 70.6, and 182 parts per billion at homes in the East Ward (the EPA’s lead action level is 15 parts per billion). City officials claimed that a “former employee” may have been responsible for one of those spikes. However, on October 26, the New Jersey environmental agency told Newark officials that its corrosion control study did not review the Wanaque system, which services not only the East Ward but also parts of the North, Central, and South Wards.
“Newark’s water is absolutely safe to drink.”
Newark officials have repeatedly misled residents by telling them the water is “safe,” despite the city’s own data showing elevated levels of lead in homes across Newark. Further, the city’s data helped explain the reason for the problem: The water treatment measures to prevent lead from leaching into drinking water was failing. In fact, the Pequannock reservoir system exceeded the EPA’s lead action level in 2015 as well. And the city’s annual report indicates that the Wanaque system exceeded the action level in 2014. People most at risk from lead exposure—young children and pregnant or nursing women—were left unprotected due to the city’s aggressive campaign of denial and its failure to properly inform the public of the threat from Newark’s water.
“Many of you have heard or read the outrageously false statements about our water, but please know that the quality of our water meets all federal and state standards.”
—Mayor Baraka’s note in the 2017 Newark Annual Water Quality Report
Newark officials have repeatedly denied that the water system is in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act. But since July 2017, Newark has received three notices of noncompliance from New Jersey’s environmental agency about its elevated lead levels. And Newark’s noncompliance is not limited to lead: In October 2018, the city was cited for exceeding the federal limits and not meeting notification requirements for haloacetic acids, a group of possibly carcinogenic chemicals that are by-products of the water disinfection process.