NEWARK, NJ - Sabre Burroughs typed in her North Ward address on the city’s online database to see if her home had a lead service line.
That’s when the confusion began.
First, no information came up. She typed in her address again, this time without the North prefix of her address. After living at the same residence for the last 15 years, she says her address has sometimes been listed without the word North in it.
This time, a notice popped up indicating her home had a lead service line and the city recommends she receive a filter from a distribution center. When Burroughs tried to get a filter at her nearest distribution center, she was almost turned away because of the discrepancy in her address.
Burroughs would eventually receive a filter but struggled to install it on her own. Her and other residents’ stories were used in court documents filed yesterday by an environmental group that is suing city and state officials over elevated levels in Newark.
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Newark Education Workers Caucus are again asking a federal judge to order city officials to deliver bottled water to residents.
The NRDC’s latest motion claims that ever since the city's filter program began in October, it has left residents vulnerable to the effects of lead. The city said in October that it would take about eight months to implement a better water treatment system, but the NRDC is asking that alternate sources of water be provided until it is safe to drink again.
This is the second time the NRDC has made such a request since it first filed suit last year against city and state officials. The groups allege officials, including Mayor Ras Baraka, violated federal regulations that caused lead levels in Newark to rise.
In October, the city began to distribute lead filters to residents -- except for those in the East Ward -- after a city-commissioned report found that the chemical used at one of Newark’s water treatment plants had become ineffective at preventing lead from leaching off from pipes. It was a stark difference from a statement that was put out by the city about two weeks before the municipal election that read, “NEWARK’S WATER IS ABSOLUTELY SAFE TO DRINK.”
The NRDC claims the current filter distribution program is wrought with inadequacies that have left residents on their own to figure out how to properly install filters or get replacement cartridges.
“In the months that followed, however, it has become clear that Newark’s haphazard approach to providing filters falls far short of the comprehensive program that is necessary, leaving thousands who drink the City’s ill-treated lead contaminated water to suffer irreparable harm," the NRDC's motion reads.
NRDC Senior Director of Water Initiatives Steve Fleischli said that if the group can't get a court order for the distribution of bottled water, it is alternately requesting a more robust filter program.
City spokesman Frank Baraff said the city has spent 25,000 hours going door-to-door and has already delivered more than 33,000 filters to residents. The door-to-door campaign will continue to residents that the city hasn’t connected with on previous visits either.
“In its motion, the NRDC is cherry-picking only a handful of responses that it solicited from residents,” Baraff said in response to the motion. “These responses do not represent the experiences of Newark residents.”
The city has received four notices of noncompliance from the state for exceeding lead levels since 2017. It has also received violations for haloacetic acids, a possible carcinogen that appears in water.
The NRDC is asking the city to distribute bottled water to certain residents, including those who are pregnant or nursing and to households with children who are 6 or younger. It also wants the city to distribute bottled water where water exceeded federal limits and to homes that have a lead service line, lead plumbing or copper plumbing with lead solder.
Although 15 parts per billion is the federal limit for lead in drinking water, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention says there is no safe level of lead exposure. Even low levels of lead in children can cause decreased intelligence, impaired hearing and stunts in growth, according to the CDC.
The NRDC also claims that Newark’s current filter program does not account for literacy and language barriers and that the city hasn’t properly communicated the lead crisis to the public. The group also alleges filters and replacement cartridges are inaccessible for many residents and that the city hasn’t provided sufficient installation, operation or maintenance guidance for the filters.
Baraff, the city spokesman, said a public education program is continuing through a multilingual newsletter that will be mailed to residents in the coming weeks. The newsletter will outline the city's "efforts to minimize risk for residents, including how to obtain a filter."
RESIDENTS’ CONCERNS WITH FILTERS
The NRDC says its consultant visited over 100 homes and found that some residents were unaware that the water is not safe and have not taken steps the city’s filter program requires. Others, meanwhile, picked up filters but never received sufficient guidance on how to install it, the NRDC alleges.
Gail Brown-Coleman lives in the Weequahic neighborhood and submitted a declaration to the courts too. She says that when her husband tried to install the filter provided by the city on their kitchen faucet, it didn't fit.
“...We have not been able to use the faucet filter since he picked it up,” Brown-Coleman says in court documents. “The only instructions we received about how to install the filter were the ones that came in the box, which were not helpful in figuring out our problem.”
She added that someone from the city came to her door around January to offer her another filter. She let them know they had already picked one up, but it didn't fit.
“This individual did not provide any further guidance or instructions on how to install our filter, did not recommend any alternative filter models for us to try, and did not offer to help us install the filter we had already picked up.”
Burroughs, the North Ward resident, says she also had a hard time installing her filter. A yellow light began blinking on the filter after a month, but the city never gave her replacement cartridges.
So far, Burroughs says, she’s spent $300 on filter equipment and bottled water for her family.
“I worry about whether I will be able to afford to continue purchasing filters and bottled water in the future, particularly when I already pay approximately $30- $50 per month for my water bill,” Burroughs says in a declaration for court.
The city provides a three-minute YouTube video that shows how to install filters on its lead service line look-up database.
The federal judge for the lawsuit set a deadline for opposition briefs to be filed by March 14. A hearing date for the NRDC’s motion hasn’t been set yet.
“The water filter deployment program is working,” Baraff said in a statement. “The City is always looking for ways to improve its services and increase community engagement, and this program is helping minimize risk for Newark families. We look forward to detailing our efforts when it is our turn to file our brief in March.”
Newark residents may pick up lead filters at the following seven locations:
• Boylan Recreation Center – 916 South Orange Ave.
• John F. Kennedy Recreation Center – 211 West Kinney St.
• Vince Lombardi Center of Hope – 201 Bloomfield Ave.
• St. Peter’s Recreation Center – 378 Lyons Ave.
• Hayes Park West Recreation – 179 Boyd St.
• Water & Sewer Facility – 239 Central Ave.
• Health Department – 110 William St.