‘What the hell is going on?’ Filters meant to help water crisis aren’t working.

Updated Aug 10, 2019

The filters meant to reduce lead levels in Newark’s tap water are not working as expected in at least two homes, Mayor Ras Baraka announced Saturday in a surprising turn of events amid a now almost three-year water crisis.

City officials said it is too soon to know why the filters are not working. Tests in two of three homes using filters showed continued elevated lead levels in the water -- an anomaly since the filters are nationally certified and used across the country to eliminate contamination risks.

“This is a surprise to everyone,” New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Catherine McCabe said, adding that she had not heard of this happening in other places.

Baraka urged residents to flush their water for three to five minutes before using the filters and recommended pregnant women or families with small children use bottled water “until we figure out what the hell is going on.”

Residents should flush the water by flushing toilets and running the shower or faucet before turning on the filter to decrease stagnant water. Lead is not in the source water but the city’s failed water treatmentcorroded old lead pipes and caused lead levels to spike starting in 2017. Flushing the water will help pump the city’s new chemical treatmentthrough the pipes to prevent lead coming out of the tap.

Newark has distributed more than 38,000 free water filters to residents since last October. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which is suing the city over its handling of the lead water crisis, is asking a judge to mandate Newark distribute bottled water to the most vulnerable populations or expand its filter program, including helping with installation. The hearing on their motion starts Thursday.

Erik Olson, a water expert with the NRDC, said he was “troubled” by the announcement. He said it only reinforced the group’s insistence that the city should distribute bottled water.

“It is clear that there is a big problem here and we need to address it,” he said.

Officials acknowledged the small sample size and assured more testing is on the way. Kareem Adeem, the city’s acting director of water and sewer, said the three homes were sampled under “extreme conditions,” meaning the water had remained stagnant for five to 11 hours.

Baraka said lead levels in those homes were over 15 parts per billion, the federal limit for lead. While there is no safe level of lead, the government sets a threshold for when water systems need to take action.

“We do not know what is happening, and we need to figure it out, and we need to figure it out fast,” Baraka said. “All options are on the table.”

McCabe said the state was ready to help Newark should they decide to distribute bottled water.

Thomas Schoettle, senior vice president of CDM Smith, a city consultant, said the testing was meant to gauge the effectiveness of the new corrosion control treatment that began in May. The treatment helps coat lead pipes to prevent the lead from flaking off into the water supply.

Schoettle said the three homes were sampled twice, once in July and once last week, and analyzed by the Environmental Protection Agency. He stressed the homes were tested under the “highest worst-case scenario” where water is sitting still for six hours.

However, Olson disagreed with that characterization and said most homes do not use their water for six to eight hours while families are sleeping.

“My two operating theories are either that the lead levels were extremely high in the water and the filter could not address it, or for some reason, the filter was not properly installed or maintained,” Olson said. “Using hot water can damage the filters.”

“There is not any other easy explanation as to why it was not working,” Olson said.

PUR water filters, which Newark has been using, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Saturday.

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