‘This is a health crisis’: Could Newark’s contaminated water problem make it the next Flint?
Some residents say they believe lead and chemical contamination in their city’s water supply is much worse than they are being told. Clark Mindock reports from New Jersey
Water bottles arrived on trucks and in crates, and residents lined up to get those rations in the late-summer heat. They asked questions about the water they have been drinking for a lifetime only to be told that it may be contaminated with lead and other chemicals, and could have lasting impacts on the health of their children.
And they learned that things may well be much worse than they have been told, even as city officials have sworn that the city’s water system is nowhere near as dangerous as the one in Flint just a half decade ago.
“I don’t drink water. My son told me, we can’t take a bath anymore because the water’s messed up,” Shaqnique Muhammed, a mother who lives with three of her five sons in Newark, said.
Muhammed said she was picking up water for the second time since officials first began distributing water bottles last month, and that she has been learning more from YouTube videos about the contaminants in her water than she has learned from city officials.
The absence of reliable information about what precautions should be taken by residents was starkly illustrated while Muhammad was talking to The Independent.
As she described boiling water for cooking, and only bathing in hot water after leaving the tap on for 10 minutes, a volunteer standing near by overheard and stepped in to tell her that those things only make the water more dangerous, or they do nothing at all.
“I’m worried more now,” she said, as her son tugged at her arm.
It is a situation that echoes the hardships faced in communities all across the country from Flint to Pittsburgh, and has once again cast a spotlight on a poor, predominantly black and Latino city, where residents have few resources to tackle a problem that on the surface can mean discoloured and pungent taps – but runs deep with the threat of cancer, and the potential to damage entire generations in the city with pregnant women drinking the water and exposing babies and young children through powdered formula.
“This is a health crisis. This is going to impact generations,” said Paradise Baptist Church bishop Jethro C James, a leader in his community who is helping to organise water deliveries.
While no amount of lead is considered safe in drinking water, the elevated lead levels in Newark drew national attention last month, when city and state officials were instructed to begin providing bottled water to around 15,000 homes in the city, and after the city repeatedly reported lead levels in water that violate state and national guidelines.
Concerns had mounted for years, beginning as early as 2014 and culminating last year in a report from the environmental consulting firm CDM Smith that found the corrosion control system at the Pequannock Water Treatment Plant – one of two sources of water for the city – was no longer keeping lead from flaking off of old pipes, and into the water. The city, in 2016, shut down water to its public schools citing potential lead contamination, but said at the time that it did not pose a significant public health risk.
In response, the city began distributing water filters to areas serviced by that treatment plant last October, after testing during five consecutive monitoring periods found elevated levels of lead.
In early August, however, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) formally notified the city’s mayor, Ras Baraka, that tests at two residences had indicated higher levels of lead than acceptable, in spite of the filters, and suggested further immediate action.
“The data suggest that use of the specific filtration devices distributed by Newark may not be reliably effective, in this particular situation, in reducing lead concentrations to below that standard,” Peter Lopez, the EPA’s regional administrator, wrote in a letter. “This means that we are unable at this time to assure Newark residents that their health is fully protected when drinking tap water filtered through these devices.”
In spite of promises from city officials that water-bottle distribution is being done out of an “abundance of caution”, residents say they do not believe the true scope of the issue has been disclosed. They point to private water analysis done in modern, upscale buildings in the city that are not among the areas flagged for water bottle disbursement – a sign, they say, that there are plenty of other areas of the city that are affected but not being adequately tested.
Frank Baraff, the director of communications for the City of Newark, told The Independent that some of the efforts on behalf of activists reflect a politicisation of the issue, and said that the city is working alongside the EPA, the New Jersey Department of Health, and other stakeholders to ensure the water coming from the Pequannock Water Treatment Plant is safe, including through anti-corrosion measures. At least one of those modern buildings testing positive for elevated levels of lead receives water from the other supply for the city, the Wanaque Water Treatment Plant.
“There were only two filters that were not doing the job that they were supposed to. Based on those two filters in the city, the EPA and the state are testing many other filters as well to ascertain what the situation is,” Mr Baraff said of the decision to begin distributing water.
Mr Baraff also pushed back on the idea that a state of emergency is necessary to deal with the water concerns in Newark, and said that those calls suggest that the national guard should be brought in to distribute water – which he rejected.
On Wednesday, at Paradise Baptist, volunteers did their best to tell residents how they might keep their families safe from potentially dangerous levels of contaminants in their drinking water, even as further testing is conducted throughout the city.
An 18-wheeler arrived carrying several pallets stacked with water – a donation from McDonalds, and facilitated by local businessman A Curtis Farrow – adding to the over 15,000 cases that Bishop James said have been delivered, and then distributed through his church in a cycle that fills the facility on a regular basis, and then empties it hours later. The church is one of the private organisations running water operations to supplement the dispersement by the city itself, which a judge ruled just a week ago does not need to provide water to every at-risk resident.
Donna Jackson was among those volunteers, and held court outside with worried residents as they asked about the water. One woman asked if she could simply keep the hot water running in her shower for 10 minutes, hoping to flush the lead out – she could not, Ms Jackson said. Another asked about boiling pasta – and was told, likewise, that it was a bad idea.
“It’s serious. It’s past serious,” Ms Jackson told the group of half a dozen people who crowded around her.
“Many people in Newark still do not understand the severity of this crisis,” she said later.
“This is another crisis in our city. We have to jump into it and get it going.”