NEWARK, NJ - A preliminary study shows that even if water in the city's East Ward had been tested for lead alone, it would not have exceeded federally accepted levels.
The draft report from CDM Smith, an Edison-based engineering firm, so far verifies what city officials told residents about the East Ward since water filters began to be distributed in October: that portion of the city is unaffected by the lead crisis.
“You can draw your conclusions," city spokesman Frank Baraff said. "I think it really speaks for itself.”
The city has received four citations from the state since 2017 for exceeding federally accepted lead levels. The citations sparked a federal lawsuit filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which alleges city and state officials violated federal regulations that caused lead levels to increase in Newark.
Newark is serviced by two different treatment plants. The Wanaque Treatment Plant supplies all of the East Ward and uses orthophosphate to prevent lead from leaching off into pipes. The Pequannock Treatment Plant services the rest of the city and uses sodium silicate.
An earlier study commissioned by the city found that the chemical the city used at the Pequannock Treatment Plant to prevent lead from leaching off into pipes had become ineffective. The process is known as corrosion control.
That report is what caused the city to begin distributing water filters to residents, except for those in the East Ward.
The citations the city has received since 2017 have applied to all of the city, and therefore, both systems. The latest report is unique in that it tested the Wanaque gradient individually to see if lead levels were an issue in the East Ward.
“...The water quality in Wanaque Gradient does not appear to be affected enough to increase lead levels in the Wanaque Gradient to levels seen in the Pequannock Gradient or to levels triggering a lead (action level) exceedance,” the report reads.
The report stated, however, that there were low levels of orthophosphate -- the chemical that prevents lead from leaching into pipes -- in sections of the Wanaque Gradient that “should be addressed.”
The NRDC filed an emergency motion in federal court to have a judge order the city to distribute water filters to residents in the East Ward. The judge denied their motion though, stating that the group did not have enough evidence to support a ruling in its favor.
The environmental group said it still remains concerned about Newark’s water treatment. Even though the federally accepted level of lead is 15 parts per billion, there is no safe level of the material at all.
“NRDC remains concerned that Newark’s corrosion control treatment is ineffective in areas of the Wanaque service area,” said NRDC Senior Director Erik Olson in a statement. “The action level is not a health based standard.”
The CDM Smith report found that some areas that use the Wanaque supply may be supplemented at times with Pequannock water since those areas had low levels of orthophosphate. The process is known as blending, and has been cited by NRDC in its argument to compel a judge to require the city to distribute filters to the East Ward.
Blending of the two systems occurs during water main breaks, low flow conditions or for emergencies like fires, the report said.
There are 47 division gate valves and eight pressure regulating valves within Newark's system that send water from the Pequannock system to Wanaque when needed, the report said. Only pressure regulating valves open and close automatically to regulate pressure between the two systems. Division gate valves are operated manually, the report said.
CDM Smith also did sampling for seven homes that get water from the Wanaque gradient. Two homes that were tested sometimes exceeded federally accepted lead levels, while another needs to be retested, the study says. All other homes either had no lead or did not have an exceedance.
The NRDC today pointed out that the combination of having low orthophosphate levels with high lead levels creates a "health risk."
“The report’s findings that orthophosphate levels are either diluted or undetectable in certain areas, combined with extremely high lead levels from tap water in three of the seven homes that were recently sampled, confirm the ongoing health risk to residents who drink water in the Wanaque service area,” Olson said in a statement.
The report that reviewed the Wanaque gradient is still not entirely completed. The city is still in the process of investigating if there are any leaking or malfunctioning valves within between the two systems. Pipe scale analysis of the seven homes CDM Smith sampled is still pending U.S. Environmental Protection Agency results.
The city meanwhile, is still in the process of implementing a more effective corrosion control inhibitor for the Pequannock system. A new feed system is currently under construction for that plant and should be in service by spring 2019, the report said.