Baraka sees racial animus, but Newark’s denials on lead echo those in Flint | Moran

September 1, 2019

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka insists that he’s doing everything possible to combat the lead poisoning crisis in the state’s largest city, and that comparing it to the crisis in Flint, Mich., is a grand slander, one pushed by the environmental group that forced reforms in Flint.

“It drives me up the wall,” he says of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “They are spreading the thing that there are problems before we even have evidence. They’re saying that in court. They are hiring people in Newark. We have professional agitators who are paid to spread this message.”

This being Newark, the race card is never far from the top of the deck. Here’s how he characterized the attitude of NRDC, which has filed a federal suit against Newark seeking the same kind of reforms it won in Flint.

“We’re going into this city with these incompetent people who don’t know what they’re doing, predominantly black and brown,” said the mayor, who is African-American. “I think they had a narrative in their head before they showed up. They probably left Flint and brought that same playbook to Newark…It’s more than arrogant. It’s bullying to me.” He added later: “It’s always sexier to talk about Newark, the poor black and brown people who can’t take care of themselves.”

We’ll get back to that, but first let’s compare Newark and Flint. It’s not a perfect match, as the mayor says. But they have a few big things in common.

One goes to the root problem: In Flint, the water source was not the problem; it was a failure to treat the water with chemicals that prevent lead in old service lines from flaking off into the tap water. In Newark, the core problem was nearly identical -- a clean water supply was improperly treated, leading to corrosion of lead pipes.

Another goes to the response. Baraka told people in Newark, over and over, that the water was “absolutely” safe to drink, even though the city had already found lead contamination in the water repeatedly. Just like Flint.

I asked Baraka about one such missive he posted in April 2018, the month before his re-election, and more than a year after he learned the tap water was contaminated. He answered with such audacious spin that I can only conclude he has potential for higher office.

The 2018 notice carries a big headline, in all caps, “NEWARK’S WATER IS ABSOLUTELY SAFE TO DRINK” and begins with this text, referring to the NRDC: “An organization has made absolutely and outrageously false statements about Newark’s water. The truth is that the water supply by the city is safe to drink. Our water fully complies with federal and state regulations.”

How could he say that? What if a pregnant woman who trusts him responded by gulping down this tainted water every day?

Take a more careful look, Baraka says. He didn’t say the water that arrives at the tap was safe to drink. He said the water “supply” was clean and pure, referring to the water in Newark’s reservoirs.

That’s technically true. But if spin were a crime, that would be a double felony.

“That sounds a lot like Flint,” says Dimple Chaudhary, an NRDC lawyer who has worked on both cases. “Someone in power, someone who was supposed to protect them, knew something was wrong.”

* * *

Is the water in Newark as tainted as the water was in Flint? That, unfortunately, is something we’ll never know because the test results in Flint were tainted by dishonest practices, like running the water for long periods to allow the lead particles to pass before taking a sample.

But the problem in Newark is severe, among the worst in the country, according to the NRDC. The latest tests, done this year, are the most alarming yet, showing nearly four times the level at which remedies become mandatory by law.

“The levels in Newark are astronomical, off the charts,” Chaudhary says. “Newark has shown in the past two years they can’t manage this on their own and they need oversight.”

Give Baraka this much: The city is responding to the crisis without the courts forcing his hand, as in Flint. But in Flint, the NRDC lawsuit forced the city to do much more than Newark is doing today.

Consider the 39,000 water filters that Newark has handed out. In Flint, teams are required to visit every home that needs a filter to help residents install them properly and offer advice on their use and maintenance, like warning them not to run hot water through the filters, which renders them ineffective. Newark provides help on request, and has posted an instructional video, but has no program like Flint’s. That might help explain why a recent test of three homes showed that the filters weren’t working properly in two of them.

Or the bottled water. In Flint, the city must demonstrate to the federal courts that everyone in need is getting the water, and that it’s delivered to those who can’t pick it up on their own, like the elderly and home bound. In Newark, the city initially provided water only to those neighborhoods served by the troubled Pequannock treatment plant, even though other areas of the city have been affected as well, to a lesser degree. And if you are home bound in Newark, you have to call the city for help, and hope for the best.

“My aunt lives around the corner and is 85 years old,” says Yvette Jordan, a Newark teacher who is party to the NRDC lawsuit. “My cousin lives with her. They called for water and it never came. Finally, they came a few days later. But if you’re living alone and have no one advocating for you, what’s going to happen?”

The city just ramped up its efforts to replace the lead lines leading into homes, the source of the problem, by tapping into a $120 million loan arranged by Essex County last week, which adds to a $75 million program that’s up and running. The city says 18,000 lines will be replaced over the next three years.

But again, in Flint that job is overseen by the NRDC and federal courts to make sure it’s done right, starting with a massive effort to identify where the lead lines are. Newark is acting on records identifying those 18,000 lines, but are there others? The state Department of Environmental Protection warns that the city is basing its plan on old records that could be flawed.

“No one knows how many lines there are, or where they are,” Chaudhary says.

And a warning: Due to the emergency, the contracts to replace those lead pipes can be awarded without the traditional bidding process. This is New Jersey. Will we get the best firms to do that work well, in a way that carefully avoids stirring up more lead? Or will the contracts go to firms that make big political contributions?

* * *

As for Baraka, I’d be surprised if this does much to diminish his standing. He’s popular in town, mostly because he’s been effective on the big issues, driving down crime, recapturing control of the city’s school system, and presiding over a building boom that is changing the city’s landscape. He won re-election in 2018 with 77 percent of the vote.

“I’m not going to criticize him,” says Ray Ocasio, who runs La Casa de Don Pedro, a popular social service agency. “You try to solve the problem, not find blame. And I think the mayor is trying to solve this.”

But who knows? Jordan, the teacher who is now part of the lawsuit, used to host events for Baraka in her back yard, but she’s disappointed now.

“I told everyone how great he is, a home grown hero who rose up from teacher to principal and now mayor,” she says. “He was a community activist and had that in his blood. When he was mayor it was like ‘Ok, he will fight for us, and most importantly will protect us.’

“So this really hurt. It was a break in the public trust. You are our mayor, and we entrusted you to have our welfare at heart. And now you’re telling us everything is fine when it’s really not.”

Baraka’s case against the NRDC is weak, to put it mildly, even slanderous. He has no evidence that they hired agitators. He can’t site a single instance of racist behavior.

He complains that the NRDC never contacted him, but records submitted in federal court show that is wildly untrue. The NRDC contacted the city over and over, starting more than two years ago, and the city ignored most of those contacts. If Baraka didn’t see the letters, some of which were addressed to him personally, then that’s on him, not the NRDC. In 2018, a Superior Court judge had to step in and order the city to release public records the NRDC was entitled to see.

I don’t know why Baraka is fighting so hard against the NRDC. They are not seeking money, only effective action against the crisis, as in Flint. Why is that bad for Newark? Is it a political decision? Is it ego?

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha is the pediatrician in Flint who first banged alarms about the crisis there when she saw kids showing up with elevated lead levels, which caused brain damage and behavioral problems. She considers the NRDC to be “heroes” who saved kids in Flint, and she wonders, too, why Newark is fighting.

“Flint kept me up at night then, but it’s Newark that keeps me awake now,” she says. “This inaction in Newark for two years literally will be affecting special education rates.”

It will take years to fix what’s wrong in Newark. Here’s hoping that Baraka changes his tune and takes all the help he can get to do the job right.

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