If judge orders all pregnant moms and kids to get bottled water, it would ‘wreck’ public trust, Newark argues

Posted Aug 16, 2019

Expanding Newark’s emergency bottled water distribution to include residents unaffected by the city’s lead crisis would come at a “terrible cost” and prompt unnecessary panic, Newark’s attorneys argued in federal court Friday as they fought to throw out an ongoing lawsuit filed by an environmental group.

“There’s something tragic about the idea that people would come to think they can’t trust the water,” said Eric Klein, the attorney representing Newark.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, which sued the city over its elevated lead levels that began in 2017, is asking U.S. District Court Judge Esther Salas to force Newark to provide bottled water for pregnant women and families with children six years old or younger who reside primarily in the East Ward and are serviced by the Wanaque water treatment plant.

Only residents who live in the western part of the city and are serviced by the Pequannock water treatment plant are eligible for the city’s large-scale distribution efforts of more than 70,000 cases of bottled water that began Monday. The frenzy started after new results questioned whether the 38,000 distributed water filters were adequately protecting residents from lead water.

Lead levels spiked in 2017 when the water treatment at the Pequannock plant failed to prevent old lead pipes from corroding and leaching into the drinking supply. While some homes in the Wanaque gradient have seen high lead levels, there’s no evidence of the same corrosion control treatment failure there, Newark has said.

The NRDC argued the Wanaque plant’s corrosion control, however, was diluted when it mixed with water from the Pequannock distribution system; they’ve long pushed for more protective measures for the 30,000 residents in eastern part of the city.

“The risk here outweighs the cost for the protection we’re seeking,” said NRDC attorney Claire Woods. While she contended the city closed the gates connecting the systems by January 2019, she said old lead pipes in the Wanaque area have not had enough time to reform a coating inside the lead service lines to ensure no lead was leaching into the water.

“Pipes don’t recover overnight,” she said.

During Thursday’s testimony, Newark’s acting director of water and sewer Kareem Adeem testified the city is already giving water to pregnant or nursing women who live in the Wanaque service area if they show up at one of the four distribution centers.

When Judge Salas asked Klein why the city couldn’t formally extend the bottled water program if they were doing it in practice, he said it would send the wrong message of “don’t trust your water, don’t drink it” when the Wanaque system was “healthy" and “functional.”

Klein went on to argue the judge should abstain from ruling on the case, saying the whole lawsuit was “fundamentally a mirage.” The NRDC has alleged Newark violated federal rules in part by failing to sampling enough at-risk homes and properly treating the water to prevent lead.

Klein said when the Pequannock plant’s corrosion control treatment failed, that wasn’t a violation. “The medicine can fail,” he said.

Woods said there was no evidence the state ever approved the Pequannock’s corrosion control plan that began in 1995. A lawyer with the Attorney General’s Office representing New Jersey Environmental Commissioner Catherine McCabe in the case acknowledged she didn’t have a record showing that the state had signed off on it. The Pequannock plant’s new corrosion control treatment was approved this April.

“We’re in the thick of it. Clearly we have regulating agencies that are awake, are monitoring this," Salas said. But she added that she didn’t like to hear about ongoing irregularities with expired bottled water, no written policy for pregnant women from Wanaque getting water and the fact that the state had no document proving it OK’d a corrosion control treatment that failed decades later.

“These things make me feel that perhaps we don’t have a handle on what’s coming,” she said, adding that maybe the court needed to be a “back stop.”

Salas is expected to issue her decision on the bottled water in the coming days.

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