NEWARK, NJ - The city has exceeded allowable lead levels again and also received three other violations since last month for other water issues, according to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection website.
This is the fourth time since 2017 the city has exceeded lead levels in its water. About 43 percent of the 244 samples the city reported exceeded the federal action level of 15 parts per billion for lead between July and December last year. The previous round of samples, collected between February and June, showed that about 13 percent of 129 samples exceeded acceptable levels.
The latest numbers come amid a federal lawsuit filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) that alleges city and state officials violated regulations that caused lead levels to increase. NRDC Senior Director for Health and Food Erik Olson today called the newest increases “concerning.”
“If the family is not using a filter that is properly installed and children are using that water or it's being used to cook or whatever, it’s really worrisome,” Olson said, adding that there is ultimately no safe level of lead in drinking water.
Lawrence Hajna, a state Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) spokesman, said there were more samples taken in about the last six months because property owners were taking advantage of free testing from the city. Frank Baraff, a city spokesman, said the lead levels were expected to rise too.
“With an increased sampling pool and until a new corrosion control system is in place, our experts anticipated that levels were likely to rise,” Baraff said in a statement. “That is why the city has been working to address this issue through a first-of-its-kind lead service line replacement program, a new corrosion control system, and an ongoing water filter distribution program.
“When the new system is fully operational in 6 to 8 months after implementation, we expect to see a significant reduction in lead levels.”
Baraff did not immediately respond when asked about the other three violations the city received for its water.
The city received two separate violations in December 2019 and this January for not meeting the federal Interim Enhanced Surface Water Treatment Rule, which outlines requirements to address microbial contaminants like Cryptosporidium. The guideline measures turbidity, or cloudiness, which indicates whether a treatment plant’s filtration system isn’t working properly.
Another violation was also received for haloacetic acids, a possible carcinogen. The chemical occurs when chlorine used to disinfect water creates a byproduct during the disinfection process.
NJDEP spokeswoman Caryn Shinske said the city is required to submit a remedial measures report to the state within 30 days of receiving a notice of non-compliance for its turbidity issue.
“There is no known direct correlation between the two violations at this time,” Shinske said, referring to the turbidity and haloacetic acids issue. “However, Newark will need to fully evaluate its treatment process in response to both violations and take into consideration simultaneous compliance when evaluating potential remedial measures, including if the high turbidity potentially contributed to the elevated haloacetic acids.”
Water experts like Dr. Juyoung Ha, a professor at Kean University’s School of Environmental and Sustainability Sciences, say the haloacetic acids issue may have contributed to increased lead levels in Newark’s water. Increasing chlorine to disinfect water also makes it more acidic. In turn, acidity -- or decreased pH -- makes water more corrosive, which could cause lead to leach off from pipes.
“Increased chloride concentrations coming from water treatment plants and road salts will further accelerate the corrosion of lead pipes leading to high lead concentrations,” Ha said.
A city-commissioned study found that the chemical the city treats its water with to prevent lead from leaching off into pipes had become ineffective. The process is known as corrosion control.
The city began to distribute lead filters to residents in October, but emails cited in the NRDC’s lawsuit indicate that city officials may have known that its corrosion control method had become ineffective as early as February.
The city is currently in the process of implementing a better corrosion control inhibitor at its treatment plant, the city spokesman said. It is expected to take six to eight months for the new chemical to become effective at limiting lead from leaching off into pipes.
Lead pipes are private property that belongs to residents, and it would take about eight years to replace all of them. The city was able to approve a $75 million bond program to replace pipes on private property because of a bill sponsored by state Assemblywomen Eliana Pintor Marin and Cleopatra Tucker, Democrats who represent parts of Newark.
The bond program will reduce -- but not eliminate -- the cost to replace lead lines for homeowners. Residents can learn more about the lead service line replacement program at www.newarkleadserviceline.com.