NEWARK, NJ — Mayor Ras Baraka began a Thursday press conference, scheduled as an official announcement that Newark’s lead levels are now below the federal threshold of 15.4 parts per billion, by playing defense.
“This is not our way of saying it is over, so let’s just get this out first and clear before it is befuddled, convoluted, turned into something we did not say,” he said, addressing an article published by NJ.com on Wednesday evening. “This is not an opportunity for us to say the lead issue in Newark is finished.”
Although officials are making public acknowledgments of a significant milestone for Newark’s water crisis efforts, which began three years ago, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has yet to confirm the preliminary test results.
Baraka acknowledged that while officials understand that the findings must be confirmed by the agency, he and those who worked to address the water crisis were so happy about the test results, they wanted to share the good news.
Director of Water and Sewer Utilities Kareem Adeem said 99.5 percent of samples collected have been analyzed by the city’s testing companies, analysts, scientists and consultants, who don’t expect the results to change.
Gov. Phil Murphy was also undaunted in cheering the city’s announcement despite the tentative results.
“Aging infrastructure and lead exposure in drinking water has plagued communities throughout the state and across the nation for decades,” he said in a statement released later. “New Jersey must continue to move forward to remediate this issue and work collaboratively across all levels of government to remove the dangers of lead from our communities. I applaud Mayor Baraka and the City of Newark for their commitment to replacing thousands of lead service lines to ensure safe drinking water and modern infrastructure for their residents.”
The NJDEP’s Drinking Water Watch website lists the city’s unofficial results, 14.1 ppb. The agency’s press officer, Larry Hajna, provided a statement on Thursday saying the DEP will perform a data quality review and reach a compliance determination when the review is completed around the end of July.
“The DEP is deeply committed to its mission of ensuring that safe drinking water is provided to all New Jerseyans, and the Department continues to provide enhanced compliance assistance to the City of Newark, whose robust lead service line replacement program will eliminate a significant source of lead exposure,” the statement says.
Newark secured a $120 million loan from Essex County in August 2019 to expedite the timing of the already existing lead service line replacement program from 10 years. In May, the city marked the 10,000th lead service line replacement since the project started in fall 2019.
"When the City of Newark was facing a water crisis, we jumped into action to find an immediate and creative solution to the issue," said Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz, whose district includes Newark. "I was proud to sponsor legislation that will support other municipalities in addressing their own public health crisis - but we have a lot more to do, and I look forward to working collaboratively to ensure the health and safety of our residents."
The current sample period, which took place from Jan. 1 to June 30, tested samples form 172 homes. The city has two water sources in the Pequannock and the Wanaque, but tests as one system.
Baraka and Adeem touted the use of the phosphoric acid orthophosphate in its Pequannock water system, where the previous corrosion inhibitor failed in 2017, causing lead to leach from Newark’s aging service lines into the drinking water.
About 16 of the 172 samples were above 15.4 ppb, exceeding the Lead and Copper rule standard. Adeem said some of those lead services lines have already been replaced through the city’s lead service line program, which has also replaced 13,000 more of Newark’s 18,720 lead lines.
The city is addressing those homes waiting for new lines through education and filters, according to Adeem. However, lead service line replacement, which is included in a different test called the Post Replacement Test, is not part of the results given on Thursday.
The efficacy of lead service line replacements are being monitored through testing kits from 120 Water Audit, which partnered with the city. But according to Adeem, the city relies on residents to submit those samples in order to test.
“Every month we send out 30 to 40 kits, we try to get 100% back. Sometimes we get 50% back and that’s how we get the notes,” he said.
Under a pilot program established in 2019, the city evaluates how different treatment and temperature changes affect lead on remaining service lines by monitoring 12 lead pipes and 12 copper pipes daily under various conditions.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the maximum contaminant level goal for lead in drinking water is zero due to its toxicity and ability to bioaccumulate over time. Sabre Bee, co-founder of the Newark Water Coalition, said 14.1 is still too high for her liking.
“I’m going to maintain that there is no safe level of lead,” she said. “To have 14 is still astronomical and dangerous, and 15 is not some safety pin to say as long as we’re under this, we’re ok. It’s the place where the federal government says now we have to step in because it has gotten so bad.”
The Newark Water Coalition, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Newark Education Workers filed a lawsuit against the city in 2018 claiming ongoing violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act, including failure to address the lead crisis on a timely basis. The Baraka administration has faced staunch criticism for its handling of the issue, including failed filters distributed to residents by the city.
“This is a premature jump at getting a pat on the back,” Bee said.
Erik D. Olson, senior strategic director for health at NRDC released a statement on Thursday saying that while the preliminary results and lead line replacements are promising, the work is far from over.
The lawsuit between the groups and the city has been suspended due to COVID-19. Baraka said he hopes that the matter will reach an end soon.
“It’s still going forward, hopefully it will be resolved. We never wanted to have a fight, but when people want to fight us we just defend ourselves. Prayerfully, it will be resolved,” he said.