NEWARK, NJ - Governor Phil Murphy announced the preliminary results of filter testing in Newark's affected lead water contamination areas, highlighting positive numbers as the governor, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and other officials continue to plot a course to solve the city's lead water crisis.
Initial testing results from the combined efforts of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (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. Officials further emphasized that combined with flushing water taps, results show that 99% of PUR filters issued by the City reduce lead below 10 parts-per-billion.
"These results are a welcome jolt of positive news that allows us collectively to charge ahead in implementing our short, medium and longterm solutions. This comprehensive set of solutions will ensure Newarkers have the best possible access to clean safe drinking water in the days ahead, the months ahead and most importantly for generations to come," Murphy said in a press conference at Newark City Hall, noting that a study report about the filter test results will be finalized within the next few weeks. "No one here for a moment is going to sit down when there is still much work to do. We will not stop until we have 100 percent of the job done."
"The image of us giving out water sent to everyone seemed like Newark was not in control of the problem and that it was being mismanaged or mishandled," said Baraka, alluding to the municipal response of bottled water distribution following an admission by the Baraka administration last month that some water filters provided to Newark residents by the city to reduce lead levels in tap water were not working as expected in at least two homes. "We hated giving out water, and we still hate the idea that we have to give out water. But we must do that until we figured that those filters actually worked. The end of this is not near. We have still much work to do."
The announcement on Monday of the preliminary lead filter testing results is the latest in the ongoing saga of Newark's lead water crisis. The EPA urged Newark residents immediately 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, additional sampling is performed, and a reliable solution can be implemented.
Despite the initial positive test results, officials noted that bottled water will continue to be distributed during the process to replace the approximately 18,000 lead service lines in the western half of the city who are serviced by the Pequannock water treatment plant. Officials also stated that the EPA will not comment on the announced test results until the full report is completed.
The city began to replace lead service lines in March, with the time to replace all of Newark's 18,000 antiquated lead lines initially estimated to be eight to 10 years. Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. then announced late last month that the county will lend the city $120 million via a 30-year bond to be used exclusively for the lead service line replacement program, a move approved by city ordinance last week. The lead line replacement program is now estimated to be completed in 24 to 30 months with the approval of the county bond.
Even with the expected acceleration of the lead line program and the improved filter testing results, public response to the official response to Newark's water crisis indicates that it might take longer for trust in government to be restored.
A Monmouth University poll released last week showed only 10% of state residents say they approve of Murphy’s handling of the Newark water issue, while 28% disapprove and 41% have no opinion. Newark residents have increasingly expressed their distrust of local government officials in the midst of a public relations crisis over its handling of a lead water problem that has launched New Jersey’s largest municipality into the national spotlight. Some in the national media have compared Newark's lead water problem with Flint, the Michigan city still dealing with a five-year-long contaminated water crisis.
Baraka, who has consistently resisted any comparison of Newark's lead water problem with Flint, addressed the city's handling of the issue.
"Early on, we've been talking about messaging, which people take to mean that you're trying to get around something or over something," Baraka said, noting that an upcoming Oct. 2 town hall meeting to be held at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) will give the public the chance to question the mayor about the lead water crisis. "What has happened here is that there have been too many messages that have been going into people's houses. It has caused a major level of confusion in our community. The only way to really deal with that is to keep pushing through it and continue to talk to people."
Baraka has courted controversy through statements made about the safety of Newark's water, a growing health crisis that began three years ago when high lead levels were found in the drinking water at almost half of the city schools. These pronouncements included an April 2018 statement on the city's website.
"Our water fully complies with federal and state regulations," said the city press release, "The city's water is not contaminated with lead."
The city administration continues to fight litigation filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental group that claims the city did not use adequate corrosion control treatment. The city vehemently denied those claims at the time, saying the allegations were "absolutely and outrageously false."
In comments to the media after the press conference with Murphy, Baraka continued to battle the assertion that the city has bungled its management of the crisis, including the distribution of bottled water.
"Why would we be in court about things we're already doing? City Hall is open to the public if they were really interested in having a conversation with me," Baraka said, one month after the press was turned away from a lead water-related meeting at City Hall it had blasted out in a press release the day before. "I'm not in the court. I'm trying to fix the problem."
Murphy declared that the DEP has committed $1 million to fund a community assistance program meant to help the city install water filters, educate residents on proper filter use, and collect water samples. The governor also noted he additionally believes the governmental response needs to move from an ad hoc basis to a firm administrative action plan.
"I think there is a very clear plan forward. We've been saying for the past several weeks that until we have more data points, we're not equipped to articulate a plan, but it's quite clear that there is a plan," Murphy said, noting that the community assistance program will be set up "ASAP" with the city as corrosion control measures and the lead line replacement program continues. "I think that re-instills people's trust."