It was a hot, sunny summer afternoon when Newark residents lined up for bottled water.
On Aug. 12, 2019 — days after the federal government cast doubt on filters that had been handed out for months before — community centers across the Brick City were turned into hubs for water handouts.
The people standing in line that day were confused and frustrated, grappling with the sudden reality that they were being asked to use the bottles for drinking, cooking and tooth brushing, instead of the water that came from the taps in their own homes.
National media descended on the city to capture the scenes. Quick comparisons were made to the crisis that had unfolded in Flint, Michigan years earlier. It was a low-point for New Jersey’s largest city, which had already spent two years grappling with high levels of lead in its water system.
It has now been over a year since the peak of Newark’s water crisis. In the aftermath of the bottled water handouts, the city’s water quality has dramatically improved.
Now the question is: What comes next for the state’s battle against lead?
Statewide Progress is slow
The roots of Newark’s lead problems lay underneath the front yards of the city’s old homes.
It’s there that garden hose-sized pipes known as service lines connect the individual properties to the water mains running beneath the street. More than 18,000 of the service lines served by city water are made of lead — and those lead lines primarily served one- and two-family homes built prior to 1986.
Such lines are not unique to Newark; they’re common in older cities and towns across the country.
The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection was aware of about 160,000 lead service lines around New Jersey last fall, according to records reported by the Associated Press. DEP Commissioner Catherine McCabe told NJ Advance Media in August that number has not changed but is expected to grow as the state’s lead service line inventory is updated.
The American Water Works Association estimates there are 350,000 lead service lines in New Jersey, and replacing all of them — the only way to ensure that no lead seeps into the drinking water supply — will cost an estimated $2.3 billion.
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.
In just the first half of this year, water systems serving customers in Lambertville, Belleville, Milltown, Sparta and Kinnelon were found to have high lead levels.
MORE: See our comic that draws out how lead got into drinking water across N.J.
How Newark’s crisis unfolded
Early signs of a coming lead crisis in the Brick City first appeared in 2016, when high lead levels were found in drinking water at 30 Newark school district buildings. Water in the affected buildings was eventually shut-off, but was restored in early 2017.
“We would have water in our classrooms for our students,” Yvette Jordan, a teacher at Central High School who worked at Barringer High school in the water problems struck, told NJ Advance Media. “So I would have a couple of jugs, and the students would come in with their cups and say ‘is it ok if I get some water?’ and I would say ‘sure.’”
A little more than a year later, Newark was hit with its first violation for a system-wide lead exceedance.
Replacing lead service lines is a complicated and costly process. Because of that, many utilities rely on corrosion control in their water treatment processes, which is meant to keep lead from leaching out of lead lines and into drinking water just before it reaches the tap.
But, by early 2018, city officials were being made aware that the corrosion control treatment at the troubled Pequannock water plant wasn’t working, thus creating a widespread risk in the city.
It would take months for the city to publicly acknowledge the full scope of the problem.
The Newark Education Workers Caucus (NEW Caucus) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) sued the city and DEP over the high lead levels in June 2018. Jordan is a member of the NEW Caucus.
Ground breaking for the lead service line replacement program in Newark, N.J., Wednesday, March, 13, 2019Ed Murray | NJ Advance Media for
The city began several initiatives in 2019 to attempt to fix the problems, including a modest lead service line replacement program, changes to the corrosion control method, and giving filtration systems to residents.
The crisis last summer hit when confidence in the filters was shaken by a three-home survey, which found that filters in two of the households failed to reduce lead levels to below federal standards.
Those results spurred the EPA to raise a red flag, send a letter to the city and the DEP, and ask for bottled water to be passed out.
Adeem said he understands the EPA’s request came out of an abundance of caution. But he said it was handled in a way that forced the city to hand out water, whether it agreed with the EPA’s logic or not
“It’s kind of like, you send the letter out but you leak the letter to the press, so if we say we’re not going to do it, then what?” Adeem said.
Geegee Moore unloads some of the 4 cases of water she received from the Boylan Street Recreation Center. Newark’s Geegee Moore and her daughter Shamaire 14 pick up 4 cases of bottled water at the Boylan Street Recreation Center because of the lead contaminated water in town. They have been forced to drink, cook, wash dishes and clean their teeth due to the crisis. Wednesday September 4, 2019. (Aristide Economopoulos | NJ Advance Media) Aristide Economopoulos | NJ Advance Media
Two weeks after the bottled water handouts began, Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka announced the city would bond $120 million from the county to expedite the replacement program. That money, combined with $12 million it had already borrowed from the state, would allow Newark to replace all lead service lines in its system in less than three years, at no cost to homeowners.
Newark then leveraged $155 million in new revenue from a lease agreement with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for Port Newark and Newark Liberty International Airport to pay back the county.
Adeem said he doesn’t think the surge of county money would’ve happened without the attention and pressure put on the city by the bottled water handouts.
Meanwhile, further studies found the water filters were 99% effective in removing lead, leading the city to end the bottled water handouts.
Shortly after the results of the filter study were made public, Baraka gave a fiery, defiant speech defending the city’s handling of the lead crisis at a town hall in the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.
“I will never concede that we allowed people to drink lead coming from the water without telling them,” Baraka said at the time, while brandishing a stack of mailers and press releases and being cheered on by supporters. The mayor did acknowledge that “some people may have gotten confused,” by the city’s earlier messaging about the issue.
Newark Mayor Ras J. Baraka holds up a water bill sent to customers in 2017 during “The State of Water” town hall held Oct. 2, 2019, in the Prudential Hall of the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, New Jersey.
The breakthrough happened this July.
That’s when it became official that Newark met federal standards for lead in the first half of 2020. After three years — six consecutive six-month monitoring periods — of high lead levels, the Brick City had tangible results to celebrate.
“This is not an opportunity for us to say the lead issue in Newark is finished,” Baraka said at a July 2 press conference.
“However, it’s our opportunity to share good news in the spirit of all of the craziness that has been going on for a long time.”
Newark Water and Sewer Department Director Kareem Adeem speaks at a press conference in July to announce lower lead levels in the city’s drinking water.Rebecca Panico | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
The city has replaced more than 14,800 lead service lines as of Friday, according to the city’s website. Newark is expected to finish replacing all of the lines by next spring, city officials said at a press conference on Monday morning.
Adeem said that at the peak of work, city contractors were replacing up to 125 of the lines daily. That rate slowed to about 60 lines per day in the spring, when safety concerns related to COVID-19 slowed the crews, he added.
McCabe applauded Newark’s lowered lead levels, and the rapid replacement of the lead service lines.
“I think it was the best outcome that we could’ve predicted within this timeframe, and I think that all goes to the good here,” McCabe said.
There is still more testing to be done.
Newark has set up a system to test the water of every home that gets a lead service line replacement six months after that work is done, Adeem said. Those follow-up tests are automatically mailed to the homeowner at the six-month mark. It is up to the homeowner to collect the water sample and mail it back to the city for testing.
Adeem estimated on Monday that about 6,000 of these follow-up tests have been mailed by the city so far. Of those, 3,000 have been returned.
Only a handful have shown houses that still have high lead levels, according to Adeem. In those cases, he added, it is possible that there is still lead in the home’s plumbing.
“Part of our follow-up is making sure they’re following the procedures we laid out when we replaced their lead service line,” Adeem said. “Did you change the aerator? Are you still using the filter? Are you still flushing the water in the morning?
Things like that.”
As part of ongoing community outreach, Adeem said the city would begin posting messages at bus stops and on billboards urging residents to test their water.
Not everyone is happy with the work done so far. Diaz said he believes many community members have had their trust in city water fundamentally shaken, and he doubts that trust can be restored.
He added that the Newark Water Coalition wants to see lead levels go lower, and investment in special education and mental health programs in Newark, to handle what he describes as the fallout of the water crisis.
“I think that Newark has made a lot of progress, but obviously, social justice warrior here, they haven’t gone far enough for me,” Diaz said. “And one of the things that I talk about all the time is how this issue, it’s been going on since 2016 so you’re talking about four years of trauma, of poisoning, of health issues that people now have to live the rest of their lives on.”
But the progress made so far in Newark’s water infrastructure is widely seen as a win for the city, and one that might be able to be replicated elsewhere. It even drew praise from the NRDC and the NEW Caucus, even as the organizations remain engaged in their court battle with the city.
“Newark is definitely making progress in fixing its water system,” said Erik Olson, senior strategic director for health at NRDC. “By completing the work — replacing all lead service lines, optimizing the water treatment, and ensuring filters are being used properly — Newark may emerge as a role model for other communities struggling with lead in drinking water. We are also hopeful that this effort could help pave the way for a statewide plan to help communities across New Jersey to replace their lead service lines.”
This story was updated at 12:44 p.m. with additional information following a city press conference.
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Michael Sol Warren may be reached at email@example.com.