Lead in the water has Newark in crisis and our mayor has done nothing, ex councilman says

Updated Aug 15, 2019

By Oscar James II

Mayor Ras Baraka should have declared a state of emergency and notified our neighborhoods immediately to the urgency of this issue. And most of all, create a formal transparent plan for city council to approve, former Councilman Oscar James II says.


Newark has a treasured history for political activism and social consciousness. Those of us who were born in Newark, and stayed through adulthood, take pride in the lessons told to us by our grandparents and caregivers. During difficult moments, rather than accept existing social and political structures, we as a community fought to create needed change. Even in recent days, while politicians in Trenton ruled our school system, we joined together to fight for local control.

Yet, after decades of continued crime, crooked politicians, unemployment, and poverty, there is still considerable work to be done. The fight for fairness and equity continues, and nowhere is this issue more immediately seen than in the water we drink.

Let us be clear and let us be honest - our city is in a crisis.

Just days ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) confirmed what many of us have already known for some time, that significantly unhealthy amounts of lead is seeping into the water we drink. This undeniable fact is simply unacceptable.

Mona Hanna-Attisha, the expert who risked her career to showcase the water scandal in Flint, Michigan, has been on record warning our community that Newark is now facing the same exact challenge. The non-political, Natural Resource Defense Council, whose mission it is to safeguard the Earth, has been warning our mayor for months, even stating right on their own web page, “Perhaps most problematic is the Newark’s misguided insistence that areas of the city that are served by the Wanaque Treatment Plant — including the East Ward and parts of the North, Central, and South wards — are unaffected by lead in the city’s drinking water.”

The inability of our city’s leadership to address this issue will have lasting effects. Lead can have tragic short and long-term physical and behavioral outcomes in our young children and infants. It has been linked to damaging their central and peripheral nervous systems, learning disabilities, and impairing the formation of blood cell function. For pregnant women, lead exposure can cause seizures, coma, reduced growth of the fetus, premature birth, even death. And in adults, long-term exposure can create cardiovascular issues, increased blood pressure, kidney issues, and reproductive problems.

For two years, we heard the warnings from other inside and outside of our city, yet our popular mayor, Ras Baraka, has done nothing.

Instead, he has chosen to leverage his high approval ratings, ignore the issue, and create a "nothing to see approach,” and this inaction for months has made things far worse. From January to June 2019, state records show that the lead levels of our city’s water continued to increase. Our city is now at least three times more than what the EPA allows under the law.

Now, in a last-ditch response, our mayor is providing a $225,000 tax-funded contract to a public relation firm to “manage” this crisis for him, is providing water filters that do not seem to work, and handing out old water bottles to its citizens. This is not a plan. Newarkers do not want a handout. They want solutions.

Rather than denying the issue, which the mayor is on record doing, he should have declared a state of emergency. He should have notified our neighborhoods immediately to the urgency of this issue. And most of all, a formal transparent plan should have been created, budgeted, adopted by the city council, and shared with our community.

Perhaps, Mayor Baraka does not understand the urgent nature of this situation. Perhaps, after years in office, he has lost touch with the people of Newark. Perhaps, because of his high approval numbers, he thought he could get away with ignoring the issue in hopes that one day the issue would disappear or people would find someone else to blame.

Meanwhile, our neighborhoods continue to be pushed this dirty, dangerous water. Well, my kids are Newarkers, as is just about everyone I love, and it is time we begin looking to challenge and question those with authority, and most of all, call out our leaders when they do wrong, our children’s lives depend on it.


Oscar James II was elected the youngest councilman in the history of Newark, where he served the South Ward from 2006 to 2010. He is currently the president of Chadwick Capital.

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