NEWARK, NJ - A federal judge has ordered all parties involved in a lawsuit over Newark’s lead levels to meet with a mediator, which could mean an early finish in the litigation should a mutually agreed upon resolution be reached.
It’s been about a year since The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Newark Education Workers’ Caucus filed its suit, alleging city officials and the state Department of Environmental Protection commissioner violated regulations that caused lead levels to rise.
U.S. District Court Judge Esther Salas ordered Jose L. Linares, a former federal judge, to serve as mediator among the parties. Linares joined the private law firm McCarter & English in May. He served as former Chief Judge of the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey from 2017 to 2019 and was nominated to the bench by former President George W. Bush in 2002.
The mediation will conclude by Aug. 1 and is closed to the public. Discussions during mediation will remain private unless the matter is resolved.
The civil litigation has called for the replacement of all lead service lines in the city, and either improvements to the city’s filter program or the distribution of bottled water. The NRDC filed suit in June 2018, about a year after some of Newark's first lead violations were being handed down. But the city in the past year has taken strides to address the issue.
Residents, meanwhile, have voiced concerns over how much money the city has been using to hire lawyers to fight the NRDC’s lawsuit instead of investing in ways to tackle the lead that has been leaching off from pipes.
“The sooner the case ends, the more the city will save in legal fees,” said city spokesman Frank Baraff.
Neither of the parties requested the mediation. All parties had the opportunity to object to a list of three potential mediators that was compiled by the court.
“The Court ordered the parties into mediation,” the NRDC said in a statement. “We welcome the opportunity to try to resolve the dispute without further litigation.”
It is unclear what the NRDC or the city will ask for during meditation. Both declined to comment when asked.
Civil litigation often takes years to reach its conclusion. This case is still in discovery, although the NRDC has asked for multiple preliminary injunctions - requests for the judge to make emergency orders.
The city exceeded federally acceptable lead levels for a fifth consecutive time since 2017 during the latest monitoring period. But the city now expects lead levels to begin to decrease in the next semi-annual reporting period.
Activists have said the NRDC’s litigation has kept Newark on its toes at every turn, and some have alleged the only reason the city began to address the issue was because of the lawsuit.
The city has said otherwise. It began to distribute lead filters once it received the results of a study it commissioned that found lead levels began to rise when the chemical the city treated its water with became ineffective at preventing pipes from corroding. The study was commissioned after the city first exceeded lead level standards in 2017.
The lawsuit has drawn major media attention and scrutiny to Newark's lead issue.
One court filing by the NRDC showed an email between city water department officials and the engineering firm Newark hired to investigate the cause of the lead issue. The email was first reported by NJ Advance Media and showed the firm CDM Smith had warned the city that the problem was likely caused by how the city was treating its water.
The email was dated Feb. 22, about seven months before the city started distributing water filters to residents.
Unless mediation is successful, hearings are scheduled for Aug. 15 and 16 for the NRDC’s motion that asks for the city to either improve its filter program or distribute bottled water.