Misinformation Runs Rife Amid Newark's Lead Water Crisis

A sign hangs outside Newark City Hall citing water infrastructure problems across the U.S.
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NEWARK, NJ - Councilman Augusto Amador had choice words for the Baraka administration this week after he said city officials told residents that some 2,000 households in the Ironbound may be impacted by elevated levels of lead.

Amador was referring to an article published by the Portuguese newspaper LusoAmericano. He said the article cited public officials but it did not say who the officials were, where and when they spoke, or who they talked to. 

His account could not be independently verified, but an online translated version of the headline reads: “2,000 Ironbound Homes May be Affected by Water Lead Problem.”

The news came days before Tuesday’s City Council meeting, when a frustrated Amador firmly questioned Business Administrator Eric Pennington about why East Ward residents are being denied free water filters.

It’s a notion from which Amador will not relent – that his constituents be given filters and bottled water despite it being serviced by the Wanaque water source, which the administration said is not impacted by elevated levels of lead.

It was the latest display of disagreements among government officials about just how bad Newark’s lead water crisis is amid suggestions that more people in more areas might be in danger than the administration is letting on.

“How in the hell can you make a statement saying that 2,000 homes are being affected if you’re a city official,” Amador told TAPinto Newark. “At the same time, you have the mayor coming before the council saying that you don’t have a problem in the East Ward. Something’s not jiving.”

Amador expressed a sentiment also permeating among Newark residents who bat around conflicting information about the very same circumstances. Some people who spoke during the public portion of Tuesday’s council meeting reiterated the notion that it is unsafe to shower with lead water, which scientists have deemed not true. 

Others continue to demand free filters and bottled water should be made available to all the 280,000 residents of New Jersey’s largest municipality. 

Baraka insisted for years that Newark’s tap water did not have dangerous levels of lead contamination until the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last month said residents in certain areas of Newark should only be drinking bottled water following two filter test failures.

Baraka told MSNBC’s Brian Williams on Monday he is also personally affected by the lead water problem. Baraka said many members of his family, including his mother, cousins, aunt and pregnant wife, live in households serviced by lead service lines. Baraka said he uses a filtration system in his own home that he received from the city’s water department.

“I’m from Newark and we have taken this thing on, head on,” Baraka said. “The characterization that the city didn’t care about what was going on is just not factual. How could I not care?”

Conversations around City Hall can range from putting the full onus on the administration’s slow response to the crisis to utter resistance in blaming Baraka for any part of it.

Councilman John Sharpe James said it was not the city’s fault that PUR water filters, which are nationally certified, failed in two homes. He reiterated the notion other government officials standing with Baraka have noted: It’s not them –it’s the media.  

“The press is fanning this into a crisis," James said. “We’ve identified the problem as the lead service lines. The filters, which we gave out, which we didn’t have to give out... they failed.”

For Debra Salters, who is aligned with the Newark Water Coalition, wrong information has one and only source: Baraka and his loyalists. 

Salters, who lives in the East Ward, said it is simply a matter of the administration refusing to admit any fault of its own. 

She said she finds it puzzling that the administration would spend so much money fighting a years-long federal court battle against environmental groups who asked a judge to determine if bottled water should be made available to all residents.

The administration would “rather misinform [and] use money to sue people who’ve been saying this the entire time,” Salters said of residents raising alarm about contaminated water. “This makes no sense.”

It’s apparent the city did not get ahead of its message before conflicting information and distrust ran rife among officials and the community, said Daniel J. Van Abs, an associate professor at Rutgers University.

Van Abs said the city should have assumed the problem was worse that it liked to believe and acted much faster to start fixing the problem. 

Van Abs said it will take at least several months before the issue shows any sign of turning around due to the time it takes for new treatments to take effect and the replacement of the city’s 18,000 lead lines, further testing the public’s patience.

“Once you get behind the message, once you’re getting behind the issue, you’re playing catch up,” Van Abs said, adding that by now government officials can’t move quickly enough to regain public trust.  “They’re already behind the 8-ball.”

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