Declare state of emergency over Newark water crisis, lawmaker begs Murphy

Updated Aug 20, 2019

A state lawmaker is calling on Gov. Phil Murphy to declare a state of emergency in Newark as the city’s escalating lead water crisis has forced thousands of residents to rely on bottled water.

Assemblyman Jamel Holley, D-Dist. 20, sent a letter to Murphy and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka on Tuesday, pleading that the state issue an emergency declaration to take over management of Newark’s water system and to dispatch the National Guard to handle the distribution of bottled water, among other requests, according to a copy of the letter obtained by NJ Advance Media.

“My humble plea to the governor was out of great concern,” Holley, Roselle’s former mayor, told NJ Advance Media. “It wasn’t about pointing any fingers. If he declares a state of emergency what it does is it releases funds but it allows everyone to know that all hands are on deck."

Murphy is reviewing Holley’s request and considering all options, the Governor’s office said. Newark officials did not immediately comment on Holley’s letter.

Only residents living in the western part of Newark, who are serviced by the Pequannock treatment plant, which also sells water to surrounding towns, are impacted. Water treatment at the plant failed to prevent lead from corroding off lead pipes and leeching into the water.

Holley also sent the letter to the mayors of Bloomfield and Belleville — two towns with elevated lead levels that buy Newark water — and the mayor of Hillside, where 50 homes receive treated water from the Pequannock treatment plant.

“No one’s been clear of what the plan is to fix this and that’s part of the problem,” Holley said. “At this time no resident believes what the governor or the cities are telling them because they are left with unknowns.”

Newark’s lead levels spiked in 2017 but last week the city began handing out more than 70,000 cases of bottled water “out of an abundance of caution” after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency asked the city to do so. The agency was troubled by new testing that questioned the effectiveness of more than 39,000 PUR water filters handed out by the city. Two of three tested homes with those filters did not remove enough lead from the water, the surprising tests showed.

Federal, state and city officials say they are conducting more testing to determine why the filters failed.

New rounds of water sampling began Friday, but, the state and city have not yet provided any details of the expanded sampling plan, how many homes will be tested or how much longer residents will have to pick up bottled water. Baraka told a radio show Sunday morning that it would take at least a month, but has not provided additional comments to the public expanding on that timeline.

The filters were part of the city’s short-term plan to address spiked lead levels in the water as the city fixed the water treatment. A longer-term plan to replace the lead service lines causing the issue will take years, and $75 million.

Specifically, Holley has asked the Governor to use an emergency declaration to do the following:

  • Immediately have the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the EPA takeover management of the Newark water department.
  • Immediately dispatch the state National Guard to help distribute bottled water to affected municipalities.
  • Make a plea to the public for contributions of bottled water and filtration systems for affected municipalities.
  • Perform weekly tests of Newark’s water treatment facilities, including the Pequannock treatment plant, as well as the North Jersey District Water Supply Commission’s Wanaque system, with results being publicly posted.
  • Give official agency notices to affected municipalities.
  • Retest all service lines, which connect water main lines to homes.
  • Set up additional lead testing locations for families and children.
  • Create a short term plan to remedy contamination.
  • Create a long term plan to remedy contamination.
  • Petition the U.S. Department of Justice to appoint a Special Prosecutor to review, investigate and make public all water, sewer and repair contracts related to the water systems serving Newark.
  • Hold public hearings, hosted by the NJDEP with the partnership of the EPA, in the municipalities affected.
  • Name every hospital and medical facility in the areas of concern as official partners.
  • Hold bi-weekly briefings with the state lawmakers, as well as county and local officials, representing each town affected.

Last week, Holley urged Union County residents to donate bottled water to Newark. He’s collected more than 17,000 bottles.

A state of emergency was declared in Flint, Michigan during its water crisis. Newark officials have rejected any comparisons to Flint.

Sen. Cory Booker, D-NJ, also met with EPA Regional Administrator Pete Lopez on Monday to discuss Newark’s lead problem.

“EPA has a shared responsibility in bringing safe, clean drinking water to the residents of Newark,” Booker said in a statement. “I hope that EPA will make a good faith effort to fulfill their commitment of getting additional federal resources on the ground.”

The EPA did not immediately respond to questions seeking more detail.

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