NEWARK, NJ - A town hall meeting meant to publicly address concerns about Newark's ongoing lead water contamination crisis turned contentious as Mayor Ras Baraka pushed back at criticism of how he has handled the problem.
Speaking before more than 200 people at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) on Wednesday night, Baraka held up documents that he used to counter claims that his administration failed to tell the whole truth about high levels of lead in Newark's water.
"We've having this because people said the mayor lied, the mayor covered it up," Baraka said, referring to notices he asserted were issued by the city as early as 2017 concerning lead in the water. "I'll concede that some people may have gotten confused. But I will never concede that the mayor purposely and deliberately lied and hid something that we told you about a full year before. I will never concede that we allowed people to drink lead coming from their water without telling them."
The NJPAC event was the latest chapter in the continuing chronicle of Newark's lead water crisis. In October 2018, the city began handing out what would eventually amount to over 38,000 free water filters. But in August, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) revealed testing results showing that out of three filters provided to Newark residents by the city to reduce lead in the water to safe levels, two had failed to work.
At the same time, the EPA urged Newark residents after the city announced the filter failure to use bottled water for drinking and cooking until the results of the filter testing are fully understood and additional sampling was performed.
Initial testing results released last month from the combined efforts of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and the EPA and the City of Newark show that after collecting 1,700 samples from more than 300 Newark homes, more than 97% of PUR filters issued by the City reduce lead below 10 parts-per-billion, which is below the federal action level of 15 parts-per-billion. Meanwhile, bottled water distribution for Newark residents of the western half of the city who are serviced by the Pequannock water treatment plant with lead service lines that are affected by contamination continues.
Whatever the statistical components of Newark's water problem show, emotions are still running high in the city over the issue. As the event moved into a panel discussion in which various government officials and health experts, including DEP Commissioner Catherine McCabe, answered questions reportedly selected from the crowd, some members of the audience independently spoke up.
"You've said a whole bunch of nothing to us," yelled a man who was seated among members of the Newark Water Coalition, a local advocacy group. "We want answers."
"I don't think the objective is to get the question answered," replied Baraka, as members of the group, which included Newark Water Coalition co-founder Anthony Diaz, were gradually escorted out as Diaz loudly claimed that Baraka would not meet with the group. "If you're trying to stop people from getting the information, then you're actually stopping us from telling people the truth about what's going on. Either you want the information, or you don't."
Other voices have protested Baraka's response to the lead water crisis in court. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental advocacy group, along with the Newark Education Workers Caucus filed a lawsuit against the city in June 2018, alleging it had violated the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. The NRDC maintains Newark has exceeded the federal action level for lead in Newark homes since January 2017, failing to act swiftly after its corrosion control system was found to be not performing effectively, then understating the severity of the problem when it notified residents.
Baraka referred to the NRDC at the start of the meeting.
"I'll also concede that maybe we should've spent less time fighting the NRDC, who was trying to abuse us, and had a clearer message," Baraka said.
However, hours before the NJPAC event, the City Council approved increasing the professional services contract with the Washington, DC-based law firm defending Newark in the NRDC lawsuit by $240,000. That brings the total cost of the contract to more than $840,000 the city has paid the firm over the last year.
"The money is well spent because we have to defend ourselves. But we would rather not spend it on fighting the NRDC," Baraka said during a press conference after the event, saying there has been no recent settlement discussions regarding the lawsuit. "If they were really interested in the city's well-being, they should stop taking our money. Get out of the court, leave it alone, and set up a meeting with the mayor."
The appropriation approval by the City Council to the law firm came one day after Baraka announced that at least some of the additional $155 million the city received from an extended lease agreement with the Port Authority would pay the debt service on a $120 million loan from Essex County announced last month to replace all 18,000 lead service lines in the city. The project is expected to take at least two years.
Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr., who was present at the town hall meeting, underscored the urgency of "getting the pipes in the ground as soon as possible."
"Things are moving in a positive direction, but I hope people will be patient," DiVincenzo said. "But we didn't want to wait."
As for some of the Newark residents who attended the meeting, there were varying degrees of patience with the city's response to the lead water crisis.
"I'm already trying to move somewhere else. We weren't aware there was an issue, and I have a young daughter," said Ashton Allen, who recently moved into one of the new downtown apartment buildings. "But while I'm here, I hope to get some sort of clarity on what we can do to help."
"This is a monumental problem that should have been fixed forty years ago, when the mayor was like five years old," said Luvander Hollaway, a Newark resident for 67 years who lives in the James Street Commons Historic District downtown. "I need to know what's safe, and if it's not safe, when it will be. Then I want to support what's needed to eliminate the problem."
"I don't believe that this is affecting just one side of the city and not the other," said Luvander's brother, James Hollaway. "We should deal with this as one city."
"We have to have confidence that our water supply is safe," said Ron Wise, a South Ward resident who came to the town hall meeting with his wife, Avia. "It's about trust."
As for Baraka, he framed any future debate about how Newark is handling the lead water crisis around him."People who are saying negative things, keep it about me, because that's what it's about. Don't talk about my city," said Baraka. "I can take the blows. Stop telling people our water is poisonous. Talk about me. Leave my damn city alone."