Updated Jan 26, 2021; Posted Jan 26, 2021
By Michael Sol Warren | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
A significant chapter in Newark’s drinking water saga is coming to a close.
On Tuesday, the Natural Resources Defense Council announced it, along with the Newark Education Workers Caucus, reached a settlement with the city in federal court, regarding the handling of high lead levels in the city’s drinking water system. The news marks the end of a lawsuit filed in 2018 by the NRDC and the NEW Caucus against Newark and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.
Under the settlement, Newark will be required to continue replacing lead service lines — the garden hose-sized pipes at the heart of the issue — at no cost to residents. Newark was estimated to have about 18,000 such lead pipes in its water system when the crisis began. As of Tuesday morning, 17,048 of those lines have been replaced, according to the city
That work is expected to be finished this spring.
“By the grace of God we are near completion of our lead service line replacement program and I am thankful that we were able to identify the issue, do the work, and are able to help make our residents safer,” Newark Mayor Ras Baraka said in a statement.
The city will also continue to distribute water filters, provide free lead testing to residents upon request and run a citywide advertising campaign to remind residents to get their water tested. The DEP, as part of the settlement, has created a dedicated email (email@example.com) and hotline (609-292-5550) for residents concerned about Newark water. The state will also be launching an online resource center for Newark’s lead issues in February.
In exchange, the suing advocacy groups agree to dismiss their complaint with prejudice, meaning another lawsuit for the same lead problems cannot be filed by the groups in the future. As part of the settlement, Newark and the DEP deny violating the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.
“Lead damages children’s brains, which is why our group of public school teachers brought this case to secure safe drinking water for families in Newark,” Yvette Jordan, the chair of the NEW Caucus and a teacher at Central High School, said in a statement. “Thankfully, our actions worked. Newark has come a long way to provide a brighter future for its children, and this settlement will ensure the job is finished.”
Erik Olson, the NRDC’s senior strategic director for health, praised NEW Caucus for fighting to have the problems fully addressed, and applauded the city for setting a new standard in getting lead out of its water.
“NEW Caucus and other residents stood up to fight for safe drinking water in Newark, securing an extraordinary victory for generations of kids who will live healthier, better lives because they won’t be drinking leaded tap water,” Olson said in a statement.
“Newark’s aggressive lead service line replacement program, at no direct cost to residents, could serve as a model for the nation once it is completed.”
The lawsuit was filed after high lead levels first appeared in the city’s schools in 2016, and then throughout its drinking water system in 2017.
Lead exposure can cause serious health effects, particularly to children. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, lead can damage a child’s brain and create learning and behavior problems. There is no safe amount of lead in a child’s blood.
There is no lead in the sources of Newark’s drinking water. Instead, decades-old lead pipes and plumbing, from faucets in schools to service lines connecting individual homes to water mains, were at the heart of lead problems in Newark.
If the chemical balance of water isn’t right, it can corrode old pipes as it flows through them, which in turn can cause lead to enter the drinking water just before it reaches the tap.
Water systems use corrosion control treatments to prevent lead from leaching out of old pipes and into drinking water. Newark’s lead problems began when changes to water treatment at the city’s troubled Pequannock plant caused its corrosion control to become ineffective.
MORE: See our comic that draws out how lead got into drinking water across N.J.
The NEW Caucus and the NRDC filed their lawsuit after the city had moved to minimize the lead problems in early 2018. Throughout the course of the lawsuit, the advocacy groups argued for the city to act more aggressively in providing filters and bottled water to residents, and questioned if state regulators had done enough to ensure that Newark’s water department was properly treating water to prevent lead problems.
Newark began handing out free water filters to residents in October 2018, after the lawsuit was filed, but only residents in some parts of the city were eligible. The NRDC and NEW Caucus argued in court that the program should be expanded citywide, but Judge Esther Salas denied that request.
Further steps to lower lead levels began in 2019, when the city launched a modest lead service line replacement program and changed its method of corrosion control treatment at the Pequannock plant.
The water crisis reached a fever pitch in the summer of 2019, when a trio of tests cast doubt on the effectiveness of the city-distributed filters. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency called on bottled water to be distributed, and those hand-outs continued until a more complete study of the filters found they were working properly.
As bottled water was being handed out, Essex County and Newark announced a $120 million program to kickstart the city’s lead service line replacement work. The cash infusion meant all of the problem lines would be replaced in less than three years, at no cost to residents.
Jordan said she believes the lawsuit pressured the city to hasten its action.
“Once the citizens spoke up, the city moved with lightning speed and made sure this got done,” Jordan told NJ Advance Media.
After exceeding federal lead standards for three straight years from the start of 2017 through the end of 2019, Newark met federal lead standards throughout 2020. With lead levels under control and the federal lawsuit settled, the only outstanding chapter in Newark’s water woes is to finish replacing the lead service lines in its system.
Jordan said the NEW Caucus is now focused on advocating for environmental justice, anti-racist teaching and protecting public health in Newark schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic. But she added that the group isn’t going to forget about drinking water.
“We’ll be watching very closely, as well as other advocates in the community,” Jordan said. “But we’re hopeful that the city will continue to do exactly what they have agreed to do.”