Both sides in a lawsuit related to the ongoing lead water crisis in Newark sparred over whether the city government should be compelled to distribute bottled water to residents of the other main water service area of the city following a federal call to action.
Up to this point, the emergency distribution of bottled water centered on the residents of the western half of Newark, who are serviced by the Pequannock water treatment plant.
But at a hearing at U.S. District Court in Newark on Thursday, Claire Woods, an attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), argued that the residents of the eastern half of Newark who are serviced by the Wanaque treatment plant should not be forgotten.
"We shouldn't slice and dice sampling data," said Woods before U.S. District Court Judge Esther Salas. "Just because lead levels are astronomically high in the Pequannock area doesn't mean we can disregard the Wanaque area. They too deserve protection. They too deserve relief."
The hearing was an extension of a lawsuit filed in July 2018 by the NRDC and the Newark Education Workers Caucus (NEW Caucus) against the City of Newark. The two groups sued Newark and New Jersey state officials charging that their violations of federal law have resulted in dangerous lead levels in Newark’s drinking water.
The lawsuit would force city and state officials to address repeated, systemic failures to follow federal rules designed to protect the public from dangerous lead exposure. The NRDC claims the city failed to act swiftly after its corrosion control system was found to be failing in 2017, then understated the severity of the problem when it notified residents.
Eric Klein, an attorney representing the City of Newark, asserted that distributing bottled water to the Wanaque service area could have a negative effect on ultimately improving the lead situation.
"To heal the system, you have to run the taps. Not running them as much is what you don't want to do," said Klein, pointing to the use of the chemical orthophosphate to control lead corrosion in pipes. To work effectively, orthophosphate must be flushed repeatedly through pipes to build up a protective layer against lead. "Bottled water is not consequence free."
"I think that distributing more water would be an expensive and inefficient solution to a problem that largely doesn't exist," added Steven Reiber, a civil engineering expert testifying on behalf of the city.
Reiber also noted that two-thirds of around 240 samples taken from the Wanaque-served homes had very low lead levels, and that Wanaque water area lead levels continue to decrease.
However, attorneys from the NRDC countered that about 25 of the homes in the Wanaque area had tested above the EPA-mandated threshold of 15 parts per billion, beyond which the government mandates a water system must act.
Daniel Giammar, a civil engineering expert testifying on behalf of the NRDC, stated that one home in the Wanaque service area tested at 246 parts per billion last year.
Thursday's hearing followed a series of dramatic events in Newark in the last several days regarding lead exposure in the water. Newark Mayor Ras Baraka admitted on Saturday that some water filters provided to Newark residents by the city to reduce lead levels in tap water are not working as expected in at least two homes. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency urged Newark residents the same day to use bottled water for drinking and cooking until the results of the filter testing are fully understood, additional sampling is performed, and a reliable solution can be implemented.
Bottled water began to be distributed on Monday after 3 p.m. at several locations throughout the city only for Newark residents from the Pequannock service area with lead services lines who have received filters.
Governor Phil Murphy's administration weighed in on the lead water crisis in Newark on Sunday, offering to help distribute bottled water to city residents in the wake of the alarming news regarding failed attempts to lessen lead levels in Newark tap water.
At a press conference on Wednesday, Murphy focused on the federal government's responsibility to improve water infrastructure, while reemphasizing the view that water marked past its "best by" date was safe to drink after the city discovered on Tuesday it had been handing out water bottles to residents that were stamped with expired dates.
Kareem Adeem, the acting director of Newark’s water and sewer department, testified that an impromptu distribution of bottled water to pregnant and nursing women from the Wanaque water service area had already begun.
"We didn't want a panic, like calling fire in a crowded movie theater," Adeem said. "We made an executive decision in a case-by-case situation. We gave them the water, then we'll follow up with an inspection."
Jonathan Shefftz, an economic policy expert, testified that providing two cases of water per week for three months to qualifying households, which includes those with a pregnant woman or young children or both, would cost approximately $300,000.
Judge Salas, who called the parties back for closing arguments on Friday, noted why the cost of time spent on the hearings was worth it.
"I'm very concerned, as we all are, in light of the current state of affairs," Salas said at the close of a hearing where the infamous lead water contamination crisis that began five years ago in Flint, Michigan was referenced by both sides. "We need answers."