NEWARK, NJ - Newark's spokesman isn’t very happy about a new video that was put out on social media by a nonprofit group that is suing the city over elevated levels of lead.
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) shared a video that opens with wording over the city skyline that reads "Newark officials are in denial about the city's drinking water." The video was posted Tuesday on the organization’s social media pages and has gained more than 7,000 views on Facebook alone.
City spokesman Frank Baraff compared the organization’s new video to a “political campaign” that is being used to influence the lawsuit in federal court. The NRDC isn't trying to boot anyone out of political office, Baraff noted, but he likened the tactics to those that are used during campaign season.
“This suit is so important to them -- to the money that they have -- to their national reputation, and you’ve got to think of this as a political campaign," Baraff said when asked about the video. "This is what you do during a political campaign. You go on social media.”
When the NRDC announced its plans to sue in April, the city stated in a Facebook post, in all caps, that "Newark's water is absolutely safe to drink.” But in October, the city began to distribute 40,000 lead filters to residents after a study found the corrosion control inhibitor the city treats its water with had become ineffective. The inhibitor is a chemical that is added into the water by the city that prevents lead from leaching off in pipes.
Baraff said the NRDC’s lawyers are looking for a “big payday” by having a judge ultimately order the city to reimburse the group for its legal fees, which would only be a “big burden” to taxpayers in Newark. He claimed the group has been dragging its feet in court by asking for documents that aren’t even relevant to the case.
“You would think they would want a quick resolution,” Baraff said.
The NRDC pushed back on Baraff’s claims though. Erik Olson, the NRDC's Water and Food Programs director, said the video was created to ensure that residents are aware of the lead issues in Newark.
“NRDC is suing on behalf of Newark residents to make sure they have safe water every time they turn on the tap,” Olson said in an email. “The suggestion that NRDC—a nonprofit organization that has been fighting for people’s health and the environment for more than four decades—is suing for any reason other than to protect residents from lead contamination is a transparent attempt to distract from a very serious public health issue in the city. And, it is patently false.”
The NRDC said it donated 1,400 filters and replacement cartridges that have been distributed since the summer. But Baraff claimed this was causing "chaos" among residents because those filters were being distributed to people in high-rise buildings that don't use lead pipes.
City officials have repeatedly said high-rise buildings are not affected by the lead issues in Newark. That’s because lead is an “impractical” material for larger pipes needed for taller buildings since it’s too soft and malleable, Baraff explained. Large pipes are usually made with other materials, like cast iron, he said.
The NRDC said it hasn't been distributing filters to high-rise buildings, and emphasized that residents in smaller, multi-family buildings could still have lead service lines.
“The City’s public messaging that multi-family buildings are not affected prevents these residents from taking necessary steps to protect themselves and their families.
Baraff claimed the NRDC’s lawsuit is falling apart now that the city has begun to distribute filters, which the NRDC asked a judge to do. Instead, Baraff said, the organization is now trying to find individual residents who would be willing to file complaints in court.
Olson, of the NRDC, said residents have expressed several concerns to the NRDC about the city's filter distribution and they only want to "share" those concerns with the court. The city does not help residents install the lead filters, and some distribution centers were closed even when they were supposed to be open, Olson said the NRDC heard from residents.
“We believe that these experiences highlight serious shortcomings in the City’s handling of the crisis and intend to share residents’ stories with the Court,” Erik Olson said.
The city, meanwhile, has posted several videos of press conferences and interviews with the mayor on social media about the lead issue.