Newark Is Facing a Water Crisis Three Years in the Making

The city is finally taking on its lead-contamination disaster. But some residents worry it’s not enough.

A pallet of bottled water is delivered to a recreation center in Newark.
A pallet of bottled water is delivered to a recreation center on Aug. 13 in Newark, New Jersey. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

This story was originally published by the Guardian and has been republished here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

On a steaming August afternoon in Newark, New Jersey, a stream of cars parked in front of the Boylan Street Recreation Center. Typically, they would be driven by parents, dropping off kids hoping to take advantage of the last days of summer at the giant pool or play basketball or tennis. But these people were coming for a different reason. The center had become a hub for the distribution of drinkable water.

Those who come with proof of Newark residency can get two cases of 24 half-liter bottles. Each address is given two cases, regardless of how many people live there. Sweating workers, hired by the city, help residents get water to their cars.

The Environmental Protection Agency ordered Newark to give its residents bottled water after the city discovered that water filters it distributed last year may not be working. Such filters helped Flint, Michigan, temporarily handle its lead-contamination crisis, which attracted widespread attention. If they had not been working properly in Newark, thousands, including young children, could have been drinking and cooking with lead-contaminated water for months.

“I don’t know how long we’ve been dealing with this lead,” said Kelvin Watts, 53, a lifelong Newark resident who was picking up bottled water. He had been using the filters, he said: “It’s crazy. It’s terrible, because that means you’ve got lead in your system and you thought you were being safe, but [you weren’t]. It was unhealthy.”

The emergency water distribution has helped shine a national spotlight on Newark’s problem. Cory Booker, the New Jersey senator and candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination who was mayor of the city from 2006 through 2013, tweeted that the “water emergency” represented a broader “national crisis of lead-contaminated water” that “disproportionately hits poor black and brown communities like my own.”

It is a crisis more than three years in the making. In March 2016, Newark shut down drinking water in 30 public schools after annual testing found elevated levels of lead. Samples sent to New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection in 2017 and 2018 continued to test above the federal maximum. From July to December last year, more than 100 of 240 sampled homes surpassed the federal standard.

Pressure on the city intensified when a lawsuit was filed against it and the state of New Jersey by a coalition of local teachers and the Natural Resources Defense Council, or NRDC, one of the nonprofits that sued Flint and Michigan for allegedly violating federal law that requires local governments to replace lead pipes, inform the public, and treat water for corrosion if elevated lead levels are found.

The EPA says any exposure to lead is dangerous: The federal maximum is a level at which officials are required to take action. Lead is particularly dangerous for children, as exposure can lead to serious damage to the brain and the central nervous system, slowing growth and causing behavioral and learning problems. In adults, lead exposure can lead to kidney, heart, and reproductive issues.

Critics have compared Newark’s crisis to Flint’s, especially since they believe city officials have been slow to act and have understated the severity of the contamination. Also similar to Flint, affected communities in Newark are predominantly low-income and black.

“This problem has been going on for a long time,” said Anthony Diaz, co-founder of Newark Water Coalition, a grassroots advocacy group. “The residents don’t feel confident in the city. There are so many different narratives being pushed out there that no one really knows what to believe.”

Last year, the city tracked the lead contamination to old pipes. A corrosion control study found that processes at the city’s Pequannock Water Treatment Plant were not working. Before the study, the city largely defended its water, despite state data that showed high levels of lead.

“Newark’s water is absolutely safe to drink,” the city said on its website and on social media. “The City’s water is NOT contaminated with lead. The only high lead readings were taken inside older 1 and 2 family homes that have lead pipes leading from the city’s pure water into those homes.”

After the corrosion study was published, in October the city announced it would provide 40,000 residents with filters until affected pipes could be replaced.

About 18,000 homes have old lead pipes that need replacing, according to the city. About 700 lead service lines have been fixed as part of an eight-year, $75 million plan. The city also started a new corrosion treatment at its water treatment plant in May, though it could take up to a year for it to start being effective.

Newark’s Democratic mayor, Ras Baraka, has balked at comparisons to Flint, arguing that they cause unnecessary panic. But clean-water advocates say the corrosion study confirmed known information and that the city has not been proactive in protecting its residents.

Erik Olson, a senior director at the NRDC, said: “It was pretty clear that they were having problems with the water being seriously corrosive. Unfortunately, rather than immediately taking action to deal with it, the city was in constant denial.”

Though the city has not stated a specific end date to its emergency water distribution, Baraka told a New York radio station it would take “maybe a month, at a minimum, to figure out if these filters are working.” Phil Murphy, New Jersey’s Democratic governor, said about 20 homes a day were being tested.

Even if the filters work, homeowners with old lead pipes are encouraged to sign up for replacement. The pipe replacement program requires homeowners to pay as much as $1,000. The city says it covers 90 percent of the cost and the homeowner must pay the rest.

Advocates argue that the city should not charge and that the project should not take eight years. In Flint, an agreement reached by the NRDC and other groups has a deadline to replace lead pipes by 2020 with no cost to homeowners. Affected residents are also entitled to free lead testing, water filters, and bottled water delivery until their pipes are fixed.

Until Newark’s lawsuit is settled, residents are left to wait. On Boylan Street, lifelong residents including parents and grandparents reminisced about a time when Newark water was clean.

“I come back from a time when we played Little League Baseball in the parks, and you couldn’t wait until the summertime came. You crank the water fountain, you see the little brown part that comes out that’s just from it sitting for so long, and then everybody puts their lips and drinks their little water, and there was no issue,” said Abu Mohammad Deloach, 54. “It’s sad that not only I, but also my kids, can’t do that anymore.”

Most said two cases of water were not going to be enough.

“If you’re using it for cooking and drinking, it’s not going to last you,” said Kelvin Watts. “Do you know how much water you have to pour into a pot to cook? It wouldn’t last.”

“It’s crazy,” said Naya Williams, 21, who came with her toddler but was turned back because she had already had her share. “The water doesn’t last you a day. It’s summer. It’s hot. We just waiting. Ain’t nothing we can do.”

Deloach said he believes Baraka can “get ahold of things.”

“I’m rest assured that it’s going to be taken care of,” he said. “It’s just a question of how long.”

Tyrone Chase, 53, who was claiming his cases of water with his dog, Prince, in tow, said that he believed the city knew about the contamination for a while.

“This ain’t just starting,” he said. “Imagine all the people that had been drinking all the water. Look at all the damage that has been done already. The damage has been done.”