NEWARK, NJ - Mayor Ras Baraka has resisted at every turn comparing Newark’s lead water problem with Flint, the Michigan city where a contaminated water crisis turned into a five-year-long fiasco that has culminated into an investigation of more than 60 government officials.
“To make a comparison is not only disingenuous, to me, it’s almost insulting,” Baraka has said.
Since Newark’s lead water crisis was launched into the national spotlight two weeks ago, the resemblances to Flint have been constant.
“It has exposed, once again, the intersection of race, class, poverty, health and infrastructure,” MSNBC’s Brian Williams said on air recently. “In plain English, well-off cities and towns would never put up with this.”
Headlines about Newark’s water issue have dubbed it “Flint, MI 2.0.” Several outlets (NY Post, DiversityInc) have suggested the Garden State is getting its own version of what is considered to be one of the worst man-made environmental disasters in U.S. history.
While Newark and Flint share some similarities, namely that they are both low-income urban cities where the majority of the population is black, there are stark differences between the two municipalities and why officials here are trying to stave of the city having another reason to earn a bad reputation.
Newark, for one, is a city that has been on the rise. Its population has been slowing growing as new residential buildings sprout up throughout the downtown. In the last decade, corporations such as Audible and Panasonic have made Newark their headquarters while Prudential built a new office tower for its financial division.
The city is also attracting big ticket events, such as Monday’s MTV Video Music Awards. In “allaying concerns of entertainers and visitors for the upcoming star-studded weekend” Karin Aaron, CEO of the Greater Newark Convention and Visitors Bureau sent a statement Friday afternoon to assure visitors that “the water crisis will not affect their stays.”
“The water crisis impacts a population of 1-2-3 family homes in areas away from the downtown district,” Aaron said of events taking place at the Prudential Center and NJ PAC. “We look forward to showing everyone that Newark is a destination city and that we have a lot to offer. We want them all to return!”
The problem in Newark exploded two weeks ago when water filters distributed by the city were found to not be reducing lead levels in two out of three homes tested earlier this month leading the EPA to suggest affected residents drink only from bottled water.
Water filters provided to residents in Flint had also failed to reduce lead because levels were too high for the type of free filters the government there issued to residents.
Unlike Flint, the problem in Newark does not stem from a change in the water source. Instead, lead leached into drinking water through old service lines that connect the city's mains to homes, according to city officials. The mayor’s office has said the problem impacts about 14,000 households in a city of more than 280,000 people.
Another difference is the political makeup of Flint and Newark. In Michigan, Flint was being run by state emergency management by appointees made by then-Republican Gov. Rick Snyder. It was state officials who made the call to switch water sources in a city run by a Democratic mayor.
New Jersey is awash in blue -- a state run by a Democratic governor and legislature with a Newark mayor who also shares that political party. However, that does not mean there has not been in-fighting.
Democratic Assemblyman Jamel Holley, who represents a district that borders Newark, wrote to Baraka and Gov. Phil Murphy asking that a state of emergency be declared.
Both Baraka and Murphy said a state of emergency was not necessary.
It took nearly two years for state and federal officials to declare a state of emergency in Flint after the problem was first discovered in April 2014 when officials there switched drinking water sources to the city to save money.
“Newark, it's suburbs, or the entire State of New Jersey cannot afford the public image that has befallen Flint, Michigan,” Holley wrote.