Newark hands out bottled water amid growing lead crisis following EPA rebuke

Aug 14, 2019 by

Water issues are becoming more prevalent around the country even as the EPA says it is prioritizing the issue.

Newark, New Jersey. CREDIT: Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

One of New Jersey’s major cities is offering bottled water to its residents after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) raised glaring concerns over dangerous lead content in the area’s drinking supply.

The growing crisis in Newark comes after years of resident concerns over lead in drinking water, leading many people last fall to start using water filters on their taps. That change hasn’t gone far enough, the federal government says, and now the city is facing water issues reminiscent of other areas, like Flint, Michigan.

Both cities are majority black with many residents living below the poverty line — groups that tend to suffer environmental crises disproportionately.

New Jersey Gov. Philip Murphy (D) and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka (D) said Sunday that beginning Monday, bottled water would be available to city residents concerned about water quality.

“Access to safe drinking water is critically important to our administrations and we take health risks associated with lead in drinking water very seriously,” the officials said in a joint statement.

The move comes amid growing controversy over lead in Newark’s drinking water, a problem that stretches back several years. Some of the city’s lead service pipes are around a century old, sparking concern among public health experts. And since at least 2018, inadequate corrosion treatment at the Pequannock water plant has led to high lead levels in some residents’ tap water, breaching 15 parts per billion, the standard set by the EPA.

After downplaying the city’s water issues for over a year, Newark in October 2018 gave away 38,000 water filters to address the problem. But residents say they still have lead in their drinking water. On Friday, the EPA sent a letter to the city and state advising bottled water usage for residents in homes with lead pipes.

“[W]e are unable at this time to assure Newark residents that their heath is fully protected when drinking tap water filtered through these devices,” the EPA wrote, after testing water at two residences in Newark.

Under President Donald Trump, the EPA has repeatedly said that water issues are the country’s top environmental problem, above climate change. But Newark’s crisis reflects ongoing contamination trends across the country. And it’s not just lead that’s leaching into the water.

Toxic “forever chemicals” found in non-stick pans and many other everyday items have appeared in water around the country, including in Michigan. And in states like Iowa, agricultural runoff is polluting well water. In both instances, health and environmental advocates have argued the EPA is not doing enough to address the problem.

But the agency indicated it might assert its authority if Newark’s situation does not improve. The EPA said it “is prepared to take appropriate action” to protect public health in the city.

Contact with lead can result in growth development problems, neurological issues, and occasionally fatalities. Lead in public drinking water can be especially problematic given the universal nature of water consumption.

In Flint, a drinking water crisis that began in 2014 affected around 100,000 people after the city switched its water source. Multiple deaths are associated with lead pollution there and residents have repeatedly accused public officials of lying to them about the extent of the issue. Litigation over responsibility for Flint’s tragedy remains ongoing.

EPA data has repeatedly shown that communities of color and low-income areas disproportionately suffer from environmental problems, like air and water issues. And while Newark, like Flint, is heavily black with a high poverty rate, the city has so far worked to avoid comparing the two situations, even as Newark’s public health crisis grows.

Mayor Baraka has previously called on Trump to help Newark address its water issues. In January, Baraka told the White House the cost would likely be around $70 million. Prior to that, the city had historically argued that its water was safe to drink, despite concerns.

Now, the city is advising residents to run their taps for five minutes before using the water. Bottled water is only being distributed to certain residents who had previously received filters, although pregnant people and young children are advised to drink bottled water. Baraka has insisted that the bottled water is only a “preliminary precaution.”

But advocates argue the city still isn’t doing enough. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Newark Education Workers Caucus (NEW Caucus) sued city and state officials in 2018, arguing that systemic failures had allowed the lead contamination to occur. Both groups greeted the city’s move towards bottled water for impacted residents but expressed continued concern.

“We are deeply troubled by the City’s announcement [confirming the lead issues],” NRDC’s Senior Director of Health and Food Erik Olson said in a statement, going on to express hope that both NRDC and NEW Caucus “can work cooperatively with the City to address this serious public health crisis.”

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