NEWARK, NJ - It's "not possible" to pin down exactly when lead started dissolving from pipes and into Newark's water because of possible inconsistencies in testing, according to a city-commissioned report.
The city had CDM Smith, an Edison-based engineering firm, investigate what was causing elevated levels after Newark received its first notice of noncompliance from the state in 2017. Preliminary results from the 143-page study were received by officials last month and prompted the city to distribute lead filters.
The report mirrors what Newark Mayor Ras Baraka has been telling reporters and residents. City officials on Oct. 12 held a press conference to announce what the report had found, but the mayor was unsure when the chemical that is used to prevent lead from dissolving in pipes had stopped working.
It could have simply been that the water wasn’t running long enough when samples were taken over the years, the report says. Or maybe the homes that were selected for testing in the last 20 years didn’t have lead service lines. The report also says samples did not proportionally represent areas served by the city's two different water supplies.
An environmental advocacy group known as the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is suing the city and state Department of Environmental Protection over elevated levels of lead. The NRDC today said the findings in the city's report validate its claims -- that Newark wasn't properly monitoring residents' water from the start.
"CDM Smith’s report shows that, if the City of Newark was unaware of the lead problem, it was because of the City’s own failure to properly monitor lead in Newark’s drinking water, as required by federal law. We agree," said Claire Woods, an attorney with the NRDC. "As alleged in our complaint, Newark failed to take the required number of samples from 'Tier 1' homes that were and are most at risk for lead—homes with lead service lines or lead in their plumbing—in violation of the Lead and Copper Rule."
Baraka pinned the NRDC as an outsider seeking to regulate the city's water. The NRDC is headquartered in New York City and has offices in California, so the mayor referenced the group's West Coast location during a Thursday press conference.
"We should not give an outside agency - by the way, who we do not know that came from California - to manage or to tell us what we need to do or not do as a result as it to our water," Baraka said.
"In fact, we have a regulatory agency...It's called the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the other one is called the EPA, the national EPA. And they have provided sufficient oversight and we've done everything -- in fact we've done more than what they asked us to do."
While the city has been reeling from the results of the CDM Smith study, a new violation cropped up. State records that were first reported by NJ Advance Media show that high levels of haloacetic acids were found. The chemical could possibly cause cancer when exposed to it over long periods of time.
FIRST DRAW SAMPLES
The report says that even if samples of water were taken correctly under the guidelines of the Lead and Copper Rule -- a federal regulation that limits the concentration of lead in drinking water to 15 parts per billion -- it may not have shown the problem.
“True lead levels are not always reflected in compliance sampling for the [Lead and Copper Rule] and an underlying issue may have been developing without Newark's knowledge," the report says.
It’s just that “first draw” samples that were taken may not have indicated there was a problem, according to the report. The Federal Environmental Protection Agency requires that first draw samples of drinking water be taken after no one has turned on a faucet for at least eight hours. Water is collected in a 1-liter container immediately after opening a faucet or valve.
“This sample only represents the water closest to the faucet (typically the first 10-20 feet of the premise plumbing), whereas the stagnant water in the lead piping may not be drawn until much later, depending on the layout of the home plumbing,” the report states.
If high levels of lead do not show up in that initial sample, no further samples are required, the EPA requirements say.
Volunteer customers -- or individual residents -- collect samples, according to EPA guidelines, the CDM Smith report and the state DEP spokesman. Mistakes that are made by customers could cause false positives or negatives, which is why at least 10 percent of samples need to exceed 15 parts per billion before the state issues a notice of non-compliance.
State DEP spokesman Lawrence Hajna explained that volunteers for sampling are generally chosen after a water system does a "material evaluation" to determine which area is most likely to have old plumbing. Letters are then sent out to property owners in those areas asking for volunteers.
"First, they have to do a material evaluation determining which housing units are likely to have a lead issue," Hajna said. "So those with lead service lines, or those with older plumbing, where they have a pretty good idea that they used lead soldering, copper pipes -- that kind of thing."
Newark Water and Sewer Utilities Deputy Director Kareem Adeem said the city has begun to do more widespread testing as well. Any resident who wants their water tested can get it done at no cost by asking the city to do so.
INCONSISTENT TESTING FOR DIFFERENT WATER SUPPLIES
The city is serviced by two water supplies: Pequannock Treatment Plant and the Wanaque Treatment Plant, which generally provides water to all of the East Ward. The issue, the city says, is that the corrosion control inhibitor that has been used in the Pequannock supply became ineffective.
Those in the East Ward need not worry since the chemical used in the Wanaque Treatment Plant still prevents lead from coming off in residents' pipes, the mayor has previously said.
The Pequannock supply uses pH adjustments and silica for its corrosion control method, while the Wanaque supply uses orthophosphate. City officials previously said they will begin to use orthophosphate for both supplies, which should take about eight months to implement.
The CDM Smith study found that samples throughout the years did not proportionally represent both Pequannock-supplied areas and the areas that got its water from the Wanaque Treatment Plant, making it difficult to identify trends throughout the years.
“For example, in some sampling rounds, only areas served by Pequannock were sampled, and in other rounds, only areas served by Wanaque were sampled,” the report reads. “This would influence the ability to identify clear data trends, such as increasing lead levels in the system.”
The city has received three noncompliance notices for exceeding lead levels since 2017. An author of the CDM Smith report said that while it was difficult to ascertain when the issue started, it probably began around the same time the city received its first noncompliance notice in 2017.
"We're not entirely sure exactly when the treatment became ineffective because it's a slow process," said Carol Rego, of CDM Smith. "The chemistry that occurs in the pipes in the system is a very slow process. But we suspect it was shortly before the lead results that were detected that Kareem previously talked about in 2017."
LEAD SERVICE LINES
It's also not clear if all homes selected for sampling over the last 20 years even had lead service lines, the report says.
City officials have repeatedly said the issue was never the water supply and have put the blame on lead pipes going into peoples homes. The city, however, is responsible for treating the water with a chemical that prevents lead from pipes dissolving into water. The process is known as corrosion control.
Those lead service lines belong to individual homeowners, not the city. Still, the city council recently approved a $75 million bond program to replace about 15,000 lead service lines in Newark over eight years. The program would reduce the cost -- but not eliminate -- of replacing lead service lines for homeowners.
The report said that Newark had been in compliance with the Lead and Copper Rule for about the last 20 years. That's because the city in 1997 started using silica as a corrosion control inhibitor, the deputy director of sewer and water, Kareem, said.
"The EPA in 1991 required all systems in the United States of America to conduct a study and introduce some type of inhibitor about how they would control lead from leaching into the water system," Kareem said. "In 1994, we submitted our study. In 1997, we implemented that study."
The report also said that changing guidelines have impacted which sites were selected over the years.
"The [Lead and Copper Rule] requirements for the sampling pool have been clarified over time and the original Rule did not establish clear guidelines for the site selections," the report wrote.
Even though the study wasn't able to confirm if homes with lead service lines were tested over the last 20 years, the report said that homes with lead pipes were used in the sampling pools for 2017 and 2018.
The NRDC claims sampling homes that may not have lead services lines was not a result of changing guidelines, but rather a way for the city to prevent the lead issue from getting out to the public.
"By sampling lower priority homes that were less likely to have lead contamination, Newark’s monitoring program prevented the public from knowing that there were dangerously high lead levels in the drinking water," said Woods, the attorney with NRDC. "Because of this, it is not surprising that sampling results increased drastically after the State required Newark to go on a more stringent monitoring program and after NRDC alerted Newark that it wasn’t sampling sufficient Tier 1 sites."
These are the steps residents should take if they suspect they have been affected by the ineffective corrosion control:
- Call 973-733-6303 to find out if you have a lead service line. Not all residences in Newark are affected. The Newark Water Department is available to provide this information. Residents can have their water tested at no charge by contacting the Newark Department of Water and Sewer Utilities at the above number or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org to request an inspection.
- If you have a lead service line, begin using filtered or bottled water immediately. “Flushing” – running the water from the tap for a few minutes – will not work in this case. Newark is distributing water filters to affected residents.
- Get children’s blood tested for lead levels. Talk to your health care provider or the Newark Department of Health and Community Wellness at 973-733-5323.
Moreover, residents can collect filters and replacement cartridges at the following locations:
- Boylan Recreation Center: 916 South Orange Avenue
- John F. Kennedy Recreation Center: 211 West Kinney Street (entrance on Howard Street)
- Vince Lombardi Center of Hope: 201 Bloomfield Avenue
- St. Peter’s Recreation Center: 378 Lyons Avenue
- Hayes Park West Recreation: 179 Boyd Street
- The Water and Sewers Facility: 239 Central Avenue
- Department of Health and Community Wellness, located at 110 William Street