Beyond Flint: Newark is sued over lead in drinking water

The City of Newark and environmentalists agree that there’s lead in the water coming out of some faucets, but disagree about where the blame lies. (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Steve McAlister/Getty Images, Gina Pricope/Moment/Getty Images, Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

Yvette Jordan, a teacher at Central High School in Newark, N.J., had heard rumors about the city’s compromised water system for years, but said it wasn’t until this year that she learned the true scope of the problem. At the behest of neighbors, she and her husband tested the water from their faucet and said it showed lead levels of nearly three times the federal action level of 15 parts per billion (ppb).

“Ours came back 42.2 parts per billion. When I saw that I was like, ‘Oh my God! What?’” Jordan told Yahoo News. “We were extremely alarmed. Our pipes were also tested and had lead in them as well. … This is a violation of our public trust. That’s what I’m really upset about. How could you say it’s not existing when clearly it is?”

Jordan said she’s concerned about the potential effect it could have on the cognitive abilities of her students, who often come from low-income families and have “so many other issues pulling on them” that they may be unaware of what’s happening.

The City of Newark is accused of failing to acknowledge or remove the alarming level of lead in its drinking water — among the highest recently recorded for a major U.S. water system. Along with Flint, Mich., other communities across the country have struggled with this problem — from Washington County, Calif., to Penobscot County, Maine.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Newark Education Workers Caucus (NEW Caucus), a group of Newark public-school teachers that Jordan belongs to, filed a lawsuit against the city in late June charging that residents are at risk.

According to the lawsuit, which cites city data, more than 10 percent of water samples in 2017 showed lead levels higher than 26 ppb, which is nearly twice the 15 ppb federal action level. In 2018, a particularly distressing water sample showed 182 parts per billion — more than 12 times the level at which the water system is required to take remedial action. Rather than a safety number, the action level number is a trigger for water utilities to take additional actions to reduce their lead. The maximum safe level of lead in drinking water is, in principle, zero, public health officials say. There is no consensus on what level should trigger an immediate do-not-drink order, but the EPA has recommended taking drinking fountains out of service if water from them had more than 20 ppb.

The crux of the disagreement between NRDC and Newark is where to place the blame for the high lead levels of water from faucets. Newark argues the water coming from its treatment plant does not have lead in it, and says it’s homeowner’s responsibility to ensure that service pipes connecting the water supply to individual homes do not leach lead into the water.

Andrea Adebowale, the director of Newark’s Department of Water and Sewer Utilities, said the city’s water is safe to drink and meets all federal and state regulations. She said the 15,000 to 18,000 lead service lines, which are the homeowner’s responsibility, are the source of the lead.

“We do not have lead in our source water, so NRDC’s lawsuit is frivolous and untrue,” Adebowale told Yahoo News. “There was not lead found in the water. There was lead found in people’s taps who have lead service lines, so let’s clarify. We sample our source water every day. There has never been any lead found in our source water.”

But that’s not the point, according to Erik Olson, the senior director of NRDC’s health and food campaigns. The issue is that Newark’s water is very corrosive, so it leaches lead from old service pipes, which exist all over the city. Many factors determine corrosivity, but generally speaking, water that is acidic — has a pH level less than seven — and soft tends to be corrosive. A similar situation created the drinking water emergency in Flint after the city began using water from the Flint River. The new source was not contaminated with lead directly, but it was not treated to resist corrosion, so the water became contaminated by passing through lead pipes. Some houses in Flint showed lead levels that exceeded 150 ppb. The highest level found in Flint was a staggering 13,000 ppb.

“They know it, and they’re lying or misleading their customers by saying their water is perfectly safe when they know full well that the water coming out of people’s taps has, in many cases, very high levels of lead,” Olson told Yahoo News.

Even low levels of lead exposure have been linked to significant, permanent damage to children’s brains and nervous systems, and miscarriages in women. It can also cause health problems in otherwise healthy adults, including cognitive dysfunction, kidney issues and fertility problems. Olson said children are only treated with chelation therapy if they have very severe lead poisoning — around 40 or 45 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dL), which would generally happen if they consumed a lead toy’s lead paint chips. He said the average level of lead in blood for Americans, now under five mcg/dL, has gone down in the last 20 years largely because lead was phased out of gasoline, paint and toys, and because of drinking water standards.

Newark residents have long been worried about the potential for lead exposure, especially for children. Water tests in Newark revealed lead exceeded the national action level back in 2001. The city has had the highest number of lead-poisoned children in New Jersey for years, and water testing in 2017 revealed elevated lead levels at 30 public schools.

“There’s a big blank space between 2001 and 2017. Our suspicion is that they didn’t do very much and continued having lead problems,” Olson said.

Newark public school teacher and resident Al Moussab said his daughter was attending one of the schools that showed high lead levels. After learning about the problem, his first reaction was anger that the city would allow this to happen.

“You realized that city administrators knew about this and covered it up. They didn’t try to notify the residents immediately. They didn’t take the proper steps in remediating this,” he told Yahoo News.

Moussab, the chair of NEW Caucus, said the city should take a more proactive approach about reaching out to residents and encouraging them to get their water tested. He considered the initial outreach that described the water as essentially safe to be misleading.

“We want residents to know, especially if they are in older homes, to get their water tested by the city,” Moussab said.

Olson said under EPA rules if the city is above the federal action levels, the city is responsible for treating the water so it is not corrosive, and pulling out the lead service lines if that doesn’t work. Replacing a service line to a residence generally requires digging a trench and can cost thousands of dollars.

NRDC has also sued the state of New Jersey because it was supposed to be approving and reviewing Newark’s plans for corrosion control and water testing.

“They basically were asleep at the switch. We think probably the state has been aware of this for some time,” Olson said. “The state has now issued them a couple of administrative orders since we started sniffing around, telling the city they need to get their act together and that they’re in violation. But they haven’t imposed any penalties or ordered them to change their treatment yet.”

NRDC and its partners say they have tried to work with the City of Newark multiple times without resorting to legal action, but were met with evasions and non-responses. Olson said it’s the water utility’s responsibility to treat its water so it is not corrosive, which was the lesson of Flint.

After being threatened with the possibility of a lawsuit in April, the City of Newark released a statement saying that Newark’s water is “absolutely safe to drink,” complies with federal and state requirements, and that lead pipes are to blame: “Our water is safe. In fact, Newark has some of the best water in the state of New Jersey, and Newark’s water mains do not contain lead.”

The lead service pipes are usually found bringing water to homes built before 1986, according to the statement. Olson said the city approved the use of lead for service lines when they were installed decades ago.

Adebowale said Newark is already in the first phase of its 10-part Lead Service Line Replacement Program, applied to the state of New Jersey for a loan to replace these service lines and conducted a public information campaign in May.

“We sent letters out to more than 3,000 residents trying to get people interested in participating in the program, and we have also began to solicit contracts for the work to be done,” she said. “So the city is committed to helping residents replace their service lines for a thousand dollars or less.”

The Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 requires the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set and enforcement standards for the nation’s drinking water systems. This includes requirements for monitoring water and reporting contamination. It also establishes what levels constitute contamination, and how treatment should be administered. In accordance with this act, the EPA passed the Lead and Copper Rule of 1991 to set limits for the levels of lead and copper that are acceptable for water coming from a resident’s tap.

When asked when the City of Newark realized there was a problem with the lead service lines, Adebowale responded, “I wouldn’t say the City of Newark realized anything.”

“I don’t know what you mean about the City of Newark becoming aware of this,” she continued. “We comply with the regulation. We initiate a corrosion control treatment system and we sampled our water as required. And up until 2017, we never had a violation.”

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., who was mayor of Newark from 2006 to 2013, did not respond to a request for comment.

The state’s largest city, Newark has a population of roughly 280,000. Residents concerned that they may have a lead service line are encouraged to contact the Department of Water and Sewer Utilities at (973) 733-4311 or waterandsewer@ci.newark.nj.us.

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