Federal Judge Says Newark Doesn't Need to Expand Filter Program to East Ward

The city's special counsel, Eric Klein (right) and Bina Reddy (center) stand with Newark Corporation Counsel Kenyatta (left) Stewart outside of federal court in Newark.
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NEWARK, NJ - A federal judge today denied a request from a group suing Newark over elevated lead levels to have the city extend a filter program into the East Ward. 

The Natural Resources Defense Council  (NRDC) filed its request via an emergency motion as part of a larger lawsuit that alleges city and state officials caused Newark’s lead problem by violating regulations. But the federal court judge refused to grant the motion since the NRDC did not prove irreparable harm to the East Ward.

“Quite frankly, I don’t think you’ve sustained the burden,” said U.S. District Judge Esther Salas, who repeatedly became agitated that the NRDC was using evidence that did not appear in its original motion during today’s arguments in court.

While Salas said her ruling today was “formal,” she will put out a supplementary ruling in the coming days after she’s reviewed all of the exhibits that have been submitted.

The city began to distribute lead filters to residents in October after commissioning a study that pointed to what was causing elevated lead levels. The study found the chemical the city used to treat water from the Pequannock plant had become ineffective in preventing lead from leaching off into pipes.

Mayor Ras Baraka and other city officials have repeatedly said the East Ward is unaffected by the lead issues because residents there get water from the Wanaque Treatment Plant. The water that comes from the Wanaque supply uses an effective corrosion control inhibitor, city officials have said.

The NRDC’s motion argued that water from the Pequannock and Wanaque systems at times are blended in parts of the East Ward. Attorneys for the city have claimed in court documents that blending only occurs during emergency events, such as water main breaks or fires.

The judge today said that while there were instances of elevated lead levels in the blended area, it did not meet the federal regulatory threshold for an exceedance.

“You’re asking me to do something that I don’t have the power to do,” said Salas, noting that she doesn’t have the ability to change the regulations.

At least 10 percent of water samples the city collects needs to exceed 15 parts per billion of lead before the state issues a notice of non-compliance. The study the city commissioned noted that mistakes can sometimes be made by volunteers who collect samples, which could lead to false positives or negatives.

Claire Woods, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, declined to comment at the end of the hearing but sent a statement after leaving the court. 

"We went to court today to call attention to the citywide problem of lead exposure in Newark. Our purpose is to ensure that everyone has access to safe drinking water and that the City of Newark prioritizes the health and well-being of its residents. We’ll continue to fight for safe water.”

The city’s attorney, Eric Klein, said outside of the courtroom that he was pleased with the judge’s decision on the motion.

"The city’s position all along has been that the water in the Wanaque area meets federal standards," Klein said. "We are pleased that the court agreed today."

Discovery for the remainder of the lawsuit is still ongoing and the case will move forward in the next coming weeks.

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