Al Sharpton passes out water as Newark mayor stays silent on lead crisis

Updated Aug 25, 2019

As he handed out cases of water in New Jersey’s largest city, the Rev. Al Sharpton said the nation’s faith community should come to Newark’s aid amid the city’s lead crisis.

Sharpton’s appearance came as a national spotlight has been put on Newark after the federal government asked the city to hand out bottled water because tests showed water filters distributed to reduce lead in the city’s water might not be working.

“We want people to understand that faith leaders do more than just preach on Sunday and go home," Sharpton told reporters in Newark Sunday afternoon.

Sharpton spent part of the day passing out water bottles to Newark residents and speaking to reporters. Dozens were on hand to hear Sharpton speak and take home a few cases at National Action Network Newark Tech World on Hawthorne Avenue.

During Sharpton’s press conference, reporters tried to ask Newark Mayor Ras Baraka questions about his administration’s response to the crisis, but Baraka declined to comment.

Before walking away, Baraka indicated he would speak at a 10 a.m. press conference on Monday to address the issue.

At Monday’s press conference, Baraka is expected to join Gov. Phil Murphy and Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. in announcing a $120 million bond program to help fast-track the city’s replacement of 18,000 old lead pipes that is currently expected to take eight years, NJ Advance Media reported earlier today.

When asked why Sharpton invited Baraka to his water-distribution event Sunday if he wasn’t planning on speaking, the preacher and activist said he normally invites local leaders to events in their cities.

“There is blame to go around, but right now there needs to be water that is distributed," Sharpton said.

Newark’s lead problems have been compared to the highly-publicized lead crisis in Flint, Michigan.

“We never went to Flint without the mayor of Flint there, even though we felt some of them had done things that were questionable,” Sharpton said. “I wanted (Baraka) to be here so (people) would not get the misunderstanding that we was accusing people of things before we know what happened.”

Newark officials began distributing more than 70,000 cases of bottled water this month after recent testing raised questions about the 39,000 filters being used by residents as a short-term fix to remove lead from the drinking water. Two of three tests showed the filters weren’t removing lead as expected, prompting the federal government to request residents receive bottled water.

Not all Newark residents are affected. Only residents who receive water from the Pequannock treatment plant are eligible to receive bottled water, city officials said. Water treatment at that plant failed to prevent lead from old lead pipes from corroding into the water, causing lead levels to increase.

The bottled water distribution has raised questions about the Baraka administration’s handling of the crisis and whether the city downplayed the lead issue before the recent tests showed the filters may not be working properly.

In a now deleted message on the city’s website in 2018, officials stated “Newark’s water is absolutely safe to drink," despite elevated levels of lead.

Sharpton said the purpose of his visit was not to point fingers about who was to blame for the water crisis, but to help people in need.

“I hope this is a challenge to others in the faith community, doing this on the Sabbath Day," Sharpton said. "What are you preaching if you’re not going to deal with the people you’re preaching to, that are going home in fear?”

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