Feds pitching in: EPA, DEP addressing lead levels at Newark schools

By Jessica Mazzola | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on March 10, 2016

NEWARK — The Environmental Protection Agency will be assisting the state in its continuing probe into elevated levels of lead found in the drinking water at 30 Newark public school buildings, an EPA spokesman confirmed Thursday.

"The New Jersey (Department of Environmental Protection) has requested EPA's assistance," spokesman John Martin said Thursday.

The lead levels reported in Newark school buildings triggered a need for follow-up testing, Martin said.

"Because the primary business of schools is education and not operating and maintaining a public water system, EPA and the states work together to ensure that schools are collecting samples at the right locations and are looking at practices or equipment that could be causing increases in lead, such as old water fountains in the school," Martin said.

Local officials have said that testing indicates that there is not an elevated level of lead in the city's water supply. Instead, they said, the problem is originating in the school district's aging infrastructure.

The DEP will be using EPA's guidelines to address the issue, and the EPA will help carry them out on an as needed basis, Martin said.

After a DEP announcement about the inflated levels Wednesday, a flurry of state leaders called on the federal government to intervene.

Sen. Robert Menendez Wednesday afternoon released a statement saying that he is consulting with federal agencies in an effort to combat the lead levels, which have forced Newark schools to truck in water bottles for drinking and cooking.

"We need to commit ourselves – at the federal, state, and local levels – to addressing infrastructure issues in our communities that have gone unaddressed and underfunded for many years," Menendez said in the statement.

Congressman Donald Payne, Jr. pointed to the ongoing lead water crisis in Flint, Mich. In January, President Barack Obama declared a federal state of emergency in Flint, authorizing federal assistance in dealing with the elevated lead levels in the city's drinking water.

"I traveled to Flint, Michigan last week to raise awareness of that city's water crisis," Payne said in a statement. "The last thing I want to see is a repeat of that crisis in my home city."

At a press conference Wednesday afternoon, city officials said the matter in Newark is "urgent," but that they do not believe the contamination poses serious health risks.

Mayor Ras Baraka said the levels of lead found in Newark schools' water were not comparable to those found in Flint.

"That is absolutely not the case," he said.

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