By Yvette Jordan Guest Contributor January 11, 2024
NEWARK, NJ — Yvette Jordan is a history teacher in the Newark Public Schools, co-chair at LeadFree NJ Advocacy Committee, a member of Lead Free NJ Steering Committee, and Chair and cofounder of the Newark Education Workers Caucus, a group of educators committed to fighting for social justice issues for all educators, students, and their families.
As a founding member of the Newark Education Workers Caucus (NEW Caucus), my journey into activism was ignited by a deeply rooted commitment to social justice within our education system for all educators, students, and their families. Little did I know that this would lead me to become a committed advocate for a cause that hits close to home – environmental justice in the face of the lead water crisis in Newark. Every day in every state across America, our children, especially children of color, are exposed to lead and other toxic chemicals in their tap water at home, community spaces, and school because of lead service lines.
That is why I am thankful that the Biden administration has taken a significant step to protect our children by introducing Lead and Copper Rule Improvements that require replacement of lead service lines within ten years and introduce better lead testing and treatment of drinking water lead pipes.
The statistics are alarming: 76% of Black adults express deep concern about polluted drinking water — this is not a problem confined to a few parts of the country; it is a crisis all across the country and affects us all.
In New Jersey, NRDC estimates that there are approximately 350,000 lead service lines operating underneath our streets, with more than a million pipes of unknown status that could contain lead. Last year, nearly 187,000 households across our state received certified letters from their local water departments informing us that the pipes connecting a water main in the street to our buildings have the insidious metal known to cause severe health problems if ingested in excess.
When Newark experienced its water crisis, our organization, the Newark Education Workers Caucus [a branch of the Newark Teachers Union], recognized its urgency. We joined forces with the National Resource Defense Council to take legal action against city and state officials for violating the federal Safe Drinking Water Act and their failure to address the lead crisis promptly and effectively.
The Newark water crisis serves as a stark and sobering reminder of how severe lead contamination is. Thousands of residents, including children, lived through years of drinking water that contained illegal lead levels. The crisis impacted every part of our daily lives, even our schools. We’ve witnessed the anxiety and worry that ripples through our neighborhoods and the fear of the unknown as we wrestle with the uncertainty of whether our homes are affected. It’s a constant worry that no one should ever have to bear.
It’s heartening to see that President Biden and the Environmental Protection Agency have taken a critical step with the updated Lead and Copper Rule to get the lead out of our communities. This important action follows years of work from our local leaders, advocates and communities. In addition, legislation such as the Water Infrastructure Funding Transfer Bill have offered practical solutions to expedite lead removal from drinking water systems by allowing states to make a one time transfer of a portion of their available funds from their Clean Water State Revolving Fund to their Drinking Water State Revolving Fund. In fact, a portion of these funds, in addition to extensive funding raised by Essex County, was used to replace 100% of Newark’s more 23,000 lead service lines in less than three years.
With 9 out of 10 Americans across different ideological backgrounds in support of requiring water utilities to remove lead pipes within ten years, Newark is one of many communities who are thankful that President Biden and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have taken this critical step.
However, there is still more work to be done to ensure that all cities are held to the 10-year timeline, that our schools and childcare facilities are protected, and that water systems are required to pay the full cost of removing dangerous lead service lines, instead of placing the burden on our communities.
The EPA and the entire administration have a unique opportunity to tackle this urgent public health crisis. Now, it is on the EPA to listen to the public voice and finalize the strongest, most equitable Lead and Copper Rule (LCR) that puts impacted communities like mine first by replacing every lead service line in the country over the next ten years, requiring utility companies to pay their fair share for cleanup, and make protecting our schools a priority.
It is time to make our voices heard during the public comment period and call for a final rule that protects the health of our families and ensures that utility companies – not residents like myself – foot the bill. The Biden administration now has the means, the mandate, and the momentum to lead us to a future where clean and safe drinking water is not just a privilege but available to every American — this is our moment to secure a healthier and brighter future for generations to come.
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