Newark's Water Woes: This Isn't Flint, Mayor Baraka Says

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Newark's Baraka 
 
Mayor Ras Baraka's administration has been forced to institute a bottled water distribution program for much of the city of Newark. Testing of water quality has shown lead contamination levels that exceed federal safety standards of 15 parts per billion.
 
The decision was made in response to internal pressure from local residents, pending lawsuits, and threats from federal regulatory agencies. This shift followed years of city and state of New Jersey assurances that Newark water was "absolutely safe to drink."
 
The water quality issue first came to light in the spring 2016. Newark, after annual testing, decided to close water fountains in 30 of the city's 67 public schools.  At the time, officials tried to downplay the obvious Flint Michigan connection. They argued that the interior plumbing in the school buildings, not the water distribution system, was to blame for the lead leaching. Bottled water was used in the closed schools.
 
In 2017, a more comprehensive, citywide regimen of water testing revealed unacceptable levels of lead in 10 percent of homes. Local and state authorities could no longer argue that the contamination was confined to older public school buildings.
 
Obviously, the public is either concerned, disgusted, or outraged. The most frequent criticism of the Mayor is the long lag between the identification of the problem and the implementation of remedial strategies. There was an 18 month period during which residents were drinking water of questionable quality.
 
For centuries, lead's malleability has caused it to be used in water systems. Nevertheless, experts agree that there is no safe level of lead consumption. Children are particularly at risk for the negative impacts of lead exposure. Lead-based paint, present in many older buildings, is another source of lead poisoning.
 
Starting in October 2018, in response to continued criticism, the city began distribution of more than 35,000 water filters. The PUR  brand filters were advertised as being capable of removing 99% of lead and other contaminants. However, tests in homes with filters also showed elevated lead levels. There may have been problems with the installation of the filters, which are attached to faucets. The faucet filters will continue to be distributed.
 
Last year, the Newark Education Workers (NEW) Caucus, a labor affiliated group, joined the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in a lawsuit. They allege that the city and state didn’t  provide water that meets federal standards.
 
Environmental Protection Administration (EPA) Regional Administrator  Peter Lopez added to the pressure on local officials. In an August 9th letter addressed to Mayor Baraka and New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Commissioner Catherine McCabe, he urged the distribution of bottled water. A copy of the letter, and information about the dangers of lead can be found here.
 
With the threat of federal intervention, Newark had to act.  Interestingly, while the Trump administration is a bastion of state's rights and de-regulation, the EPA's regulatory responsibilities pushed Newark into taking the necessary action.
 
Newark’s water comes from two sources; the Wanaque river and reservoir serves the eastern part of the city, the Pequannock system serves the balance of residents.  It is this system that has been judged contaminated. Free water pickup locations include the Newark Department of Health and Wellness, 110 William Street; the Boylan Street Recreation Center, 916 South Orange Avenue; the Bo Porter Sports Complex, 378 Lyons Avenue; and the Vince Lombardi Center, 201 Bloomfield Avenue.
 
Residents will have to bring proof that they reside in the affected area to receive free water. The water filter distribution program will continue.
 
In a statement last week, Mayor Baraka tried to reassure the public while calling on the federal government to participate in financing an expedited reconstruction of the water delivery system.  
 
Last week, the Mayor said, “I understand in the Flint environment that any sign of elevation is going to make everyone go haywire, but here, the water system in Newark is still safe, it’s still drinkable.” The Newark municipal website has prepared a fact sheet summarizing their efforts to address the water crisis.  
 
It may be time for the Mayor and Governor to stop saying there's no problem, shifting to a position that says we acknowledge and are dealing with the problem.
 
 

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