The first indications that Newark had elevated levels of lead in its water supply came in 2016, when samples showed levels exceeded the federal standards in numerous schools. In 2017, the city received a notice of “non-compliance” from the state Department of Environmental Protection because of elevated levels of lead in residential homes.
In September 2017, numerous community and environmental groups wrote to the city to convey their “deep concern that not enough is being done to make the public aware of the severity of lead-contaminated drinking water in our City, and to respond comprehensively to the crisis.” The following January, more test results showed elevated levels of lead in the water.
The Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, filed suit in 2018, alleging that city and state officials violated federal regulations that caused lead levels to rise.
The concerns were initially downplayed by the administration of Mayor Ras Baraka, who repeatedly told residents that Newark’s water met all federal and state standards.
Baraka was correct in noting that the lead in Newark’s water did not come from the source, but rather from old lead service lines leading into homes. When Newark changed certain chemicals at the treatment plant, it caused lead to leach from the service lines.
While the water that left the plant met federal standards, by the time it came out of faucets in many homes with lead service lines, it had elevated levels of lead, which has serious health effects, especially in children. No level of lead is considered safe.
In October 2018, the city began distributing water filters and replacement cartridges to homeowners with lead service lines. But in the summer of 2019, testing revealed that the filters were not working properly in a few homes and the city began handing out bottled water.
Newark began the process of replacing lead service lines to home, estimating it would take up to 10 years to replace 18,720 lines. In August 2019, Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo announced that he would provide $120 million in financing to speed up Newark's lead service line replacement program. To date, the city has replaced 4,187 lines and is on target to finish the job in 27 months, according to a city spokesman.
From the Series: Top Newark Stories of the Decade