Newark mayor rails against lead water critics as long-term fix surges forward

Posted Oct 03, 2019

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka adamantly defended his handling of the city’s lead water crisis Wednesday night, rejecting any notion that he misled or lied to residents about the problem that’s gripped the city for more than two years.

“I will never concede that we allowed people to drink lead coming from the water without telling them,” a fiery Baraka said during a town hall on the city’s water at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center as supporters cheered him on.

Holding a stack of mailers and press releases, Baraka insisted the city had been informing residents along the way -- since lead levels spiked citywide in 2017 -- but conceded that “some people may have gotten confused” with an April 2018 announcement saying the water was “absolutely safe to drink.”

He said the city should have stopped focusing on fighting the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has sued Newark and the state over their handling of the lead crisis. All sides are still fighting in court.

Newark’s water woes, which first surfaced in 2017, returned to the forefront in August when the city began distributing bottled water to 29,000 families after troubling tests questioned whether filters were doing enough to protect residents. Officials are now urging residents to resume using filters -- preliminary testing released last week that found 97% of the filters worked.

Wednesday’s “state of the water” caps a series of press appearances Baraka has made the last few weeks to tout the ways Newark is leading the way to eradicate all 18,000 old lead pipes that are causing lead to leach into the water. All the lead services lines will be replaced in the next 30 months. Newark has already replaced more than 1,000 lead lines.

Kareem Adeem, the city’s acting director of water and sewer, said the city will stop giving out bottled water soon (123,000 cases have been distributed so far) to encourage people to start trusting filtered tap water again. Water use is down about 25%, he said.

Health experts and state Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Catherine McCabe joined city officials to answer pre-submitted questions from residents on stage about the effects of lead and when the problem would be fixed. Most praised Baraka’s response to the crisis.

“These are complex problems that are not solved overnight,” McCabe said, adding that more than 60 other water systems in the state had high lead levels in the water. She said she wished other systems were “as responsive” as Newark.

Health professionals also reminded residents that lead has to be ingested to be dangerous and bathing and showering with elevated lead levels in the water poses no danger.

Early on, a young father interrupted the panelists, yelling out questions from the audience. “Can we give it to our children? Can we bathe in it?” he asked. Police eventually escorted him and members of the Newark Water Coalition out of the event.

Other residents who attended the town hall said they were overwhelmed trying to keep up with all the information and changes to whether they could drink the water or not.

A new treatment to prevent lead from dissolving into the water should take effect in a few months, city officials said.

“I know this is a very emotional issue, very difficult for us in the city, very contentious and confusing, too,” Baraka said. “We want you to have trust that when you turn your water on and it comes out, it’s OK.”

But that trust will take time to rebuild.

During a health fair prior to the town hall, Vera Smith said city officials told her she wasn’t eligible for a free filter -- even though she had already received one before that no longer fit her new faucet.

“I’m going to go buy one, I’m not going to drink the water," she said.

Do you like this post?

Be the first to comment