October 30, 2018; New York Times
It would be wise to learn from the experience of the catastrophic (and still ongoing) lead-in-the-water crisis in Flint, Michigan. So in March 2016, when lead was found in the drinking fountains at schools in Newark, New Jersey, city and school officials turned off the water at school drinking fountains and supplied bottled water to students and staff until they could ensure safety.
But according to the New York Times, the problem was known to the school district for at least six years before this action was taken. Dealing with this kind of life-impacting issue swiftly and with transparency would have been the responsible thing to do.
Newark, like Flint, has a large population of low-income people of color. As one Newark parent stated: “We already have mold, we don’t need lead. I’m afraid we’re getting sick. Nobody seems to care about us out here.”
Liz Leyden at the New York Times reports,
In Newark, about a quarter of the more than 14,000 children under 6 who were tested in 2016 had measurable levels of lead in their blood, according to an analysis by Advocates for Children of New Jersey of the most recent publicly available state data.
“This suggests a pervasive problem throughout the city coming from a variety of sources, and water could easily be one of them,” said Peter Chen, policy counsel at A.C.N.J.
Sign up for our free newsletters
Subscribe to NPQ's newsletters to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.
In 2017, more than 22 percent of the samples from its water system tested during the first half of the year exceeded 15 parts per billion of lead, the federal threshold requiring action. Elevated levels have remained in the system for each of the ensuing six-month monitoring periods.
Up to this point, Newark officials were declaring that the water was safe to drink. Their continuing denial of a widespread lead problem, especially given their knowledge of the debacle in Flint, leaves one scratching one’s head. Newark was and is facing a public health crisis. There is evidence that this is the case. Young children are at risk. And yet, public officials would deny that this is so until they are backed into a corner and have no way out other than to acknowledge it.
Fast forward to 2018. After lots of denials, Newark public officials are admitting that there is a problem. Their water is unsafe to drink without being filtered, and the lead problem is more widespread than they had first indicated. Further, it seems to be coming from multiple sources, including from one of its two water treatment plants and the more than 15,000 lead service lines that connect the city’s water main to private plumbing. It could take as long as eight years to replace these pipes.
The solutions seem to satisfy few people. The mayor of Newark, Ras Baraka, has been on the defensive. “When you make a statement that the drinking water is not safe, it is yelling fire in a crowded room,” he told reporters at a recent news conference. “In fact, Newark has some of the best drinking water. The problem is that our infrastructure is not safe.” But correcting infrastructure is both costly and time-consuming and often not given the highest priority. For the parents of young children of in Newark, nothing is of more importance than basic safety. Once again, the echoes of Flint, Michigan are heard.
“The parallels to Flint are fairly clear: The city was denying a problem even though its own data was showing problems,” said Erik Olson, a top official at the Natural Resources Defense Council, which filed a lawsuit against Newark in the summer, accusing it of violating federal safe drinking water laws. “Newark is not as extreme as Flint but still a serious problem.”
For residents, nonprofits, business owners, and others who consume water in Newark, skepticism abounds regarding the city’s response. Letters, robocalls, and Facebook town halls were initiated, but they did not reach everyone and in all of this, officials still minimized the problem. Water filters were distributed, but often residents had to find out for themselves where these programs were. The mother who was already was dealing with mold in her apartment had to wait weeks for the water department to test her water for lead levels. When they finally did, it measured 42.2 parts per billion—nearly three times the federal action threshold. Fortunately, she had switched to bottled water when the issue first reared its head in 2016.
The parallels between Flint and Newark are, indeed, clear. From the outrage and fears of parents, to the clarity of the evidence, to the obstruction and diversion of the issue by city and state officials, the two cities’ approaches align. Now come the lawsuits, and if we know anything from Flint, it’s that Newark will not come out of these lawsuits a winner. NPQ has written extensively about Flint over the last few years, covering all aspects of this devastating crisis that has left the city in total disarray. Perhaps the leaders of Newark will wake up and smell the coffee…and learn something from their sister city’s experience.—Carole Levine