Newark Says Water Crisis Is Easing as Lead Filters Prove Mostly Effective

By 

THE NEW YORK TIMES

Published Sept. 23, 2019

Newark started giving out bottled water in August under pressure from the Environmental Protection Agency.

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NEWARK — Officials in New Jersey’s largest city announced on Monday that thousands of water filters handed out to residents had significantly reduced lead in drinking water to safe levels.

Bottled water would still be made available, but officials said the crisis that had gripped the city for months seemed to be easing.

Testing done jointly by city, state and federal officials found that the filters had been 97 percent effective at reducing lead levels to below a federally acceptable standard, meaning that 97 percent of test results showed the filters working properly.

“These results are a welcome jolt of positive news that allows us collectively to charge ahead in implementing our short-term, midterm and long-term solutions,” Gov. Philip D. Murphy said at a news conference on Monday.

The state had set safe lead levels for the testing in Newark at 10 parts per billion. The benchmark established by the Environmental Protection Agency is 15 parts per billion, and the threshold for bottled water is five parts per billion.

Because 3 percent of the results showed rates above the level set by the state, bottled water would be provided to anyone who wanted it, officials said.

Scientists agree there is no safe level of lead in water. High blood lead levels can stunt a child’s mental development and damage organs. But even smaller amounts can affect children’s intellectual development.

Over 1,700 samples from about 300 homes were tested over five weeks. The results announced on Monday are considered preliminary and a more complete report will be issued in a few weeks, state officials said. The E.P.A., which worked with the state and city on the testing, said it would not issue a comment until a full report was released.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group that has sued the Newark over lead levels, released a statement welcoming the test results, but it also pushed for more information.

“We say ‘trust, but verify,’” Erik Olson, a senior director at the group, said. “The city, state and federal Environmental Protection Agency should provide all test results and the protocols used to test the filters to the public so Newark residents can feel confident that filters will protect their health. Anything less than full transparency will breed further distrust and skepticism.”

The group added that the city should ensure that the water filters were installed correctly and properly maintained. “Until this is sorted out,” Mr. Olson said, “we urge the continued provision of bottled water to all at-risk Newark residents.”

The governor said the state would invest $1 million to create a community assistance program to help residents install water filters and collect water samples.

The water crisis in Newark has ripped at the fabric of this city of 280,000, casting a national spotlight on an environmental problem that many urban areas are confronting and drawing comparisons to the water emergency in Flint, Mich.

Residents faulted city officials for a sluggish response, and the crisis exposed how years of neglect, mismanagement and corruption brought the water system to a breaking point.

Though Newark has battled lead in its water for decades, the situation escalated in October after testing showed persistently high lead levels. The city distributed water filters — the same filters used in Flint — to remove lead that had been leaching into tap water from lead pipes.

But after testing of those filters found that some were failing to adequately remove lead, the E.P.A. sent a scathing letter to the city last month threatening penalties “should the state and city not promptly undertake” the dispensing of bottled water and other actions.

The initial distribution was marked by delays and confusion as residents lined up to wait in slow-moving lines.

Now, Newark is taking aggressive steps to overhaul its water system. Officials recently announced a financing plan that would allow Newark to significantly accelerate its efforts to replace all 18,000 lead service lines in the city. The project should be completed in less than three years, officials said.

In May the city began a chemical treatment program to prevent lead from leaching into the water, but it will take until next year for the chemicals to set.

“We are not in any way having a victory lap because this is not a victory lap for us,” Mayor Ras Baraka said. “It is good news in a long and arduous task to make sure that we have clean drinking water.”

For Newark residents, the results of the lead testing helped allay some of their anxiety.

“Homes should be a place that shelter us from harm, not a cause of one,” said Kim Gaddy, who lives in the South Ward and is an organizer of Clean Water Action, a local group. “We need every level of protection available to reduce the cumulative impacts of lead in our homes.”

Experts said the test results showed that Newark was moving in the right direction in tackling the lead problem.

“Our research on this has shown that nothing is 100 percent effective,” Marc Edwards, a professor of engineering at Virginia Tech University, said. “The ground of acceptable risk has shifted beneath our feet in the aftermath of Flint, and that’s a good thing because obviously the old approaches were not sufficiently protective. But there is no such thing as zero risk.”

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