Murphy’s bogus spin on Newark’s lead crisis | Moran

Posted Sep 8, 2019

Here’s what Gov. Phil Murphy said a few days ago about the lead poisoning crisis in Newark, during a call-in show on WNYC radio:

“I commend everybody involved, including the folks in our administration, that we moved as quickly as we did, and again hats off to Newark and I want to give Mayor Baraka a big shout out.”

This is Trump-level chutzpah, folks. In Murphy world, no one made any mistakes. Sorry about those poisoned kids, but it’s not our fault.

People in Newark have been drinking contaminated water for at least two years, while the mayor assured everyone it was perfectly safe. The state knew all about it from the start, because Newark tested every six months and dutifully passed on the horrifying numbers, which show the problem is becoming more severe, not less.

“The levels are astronomical, off the charts,” says Dimple Chaudhary, a lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council who worked on the Flint, Michigan, case and is now battling the Murphy administration and the city of Newark in federal court.

In Newark, the city and state governments are doing much less than was done in Flint, even though a 2015 study based on government data found the epidemic of lead poisoning is even more severe in Newark.

Why is New Jersey fighting the NRDC, one of the most respected environmental groups in the country, whose only goal is to force New Jersey to apply the Flint remedies? Why would the state not welcome the help, and replicate Flint’s success?

“I honestly don’t know,” says Chaudhary. “Oversight here clearly failed. And the (state) Department of Environmental Protection was in charge of that. This track record does not inspire confidence. That’s why other people need to be at the table.”

I don’t know why Murphy is fighting the NRDC either, but I have a theory: It would embarrass him to admit that this happened on his watch. It might embarrass Sen. Cory Booker during the middle of his presidential campaign. And it would surely embarrass Mayor Ras Baraka, whose support Murphy needs in a bitterly divided Democratic Party.

The truth is we have a serious problem in Newark, and it has clear echoes of the disaster in Flint. In both cities, the failure to properly treat water left it too acidic, causing lead in home service lines to flake off. In both cities, the authorities assured residents the water was safe to drink, even after tests showed that was not true. In both cities, the NRDC teamed up with local groups to file suit and demand remedies.

In Flint, though, the authorities finally surrendered, and largely agreed to the NRDC plan. It’s being implemented under the watchful eye of a federal judge who presides over regular meetings during which all parties assess progress.

When they handed out filters in Flint, local crews were hired to go into each house to attach the filters and offer guidance on their use, like a warning that running hot water through the filters renders them ineffective. That’s not being done in Newark, which may explain why two of three filters tested in August were not working.

In Flint, the authorities had to show the judge that everyone who needed bottled water was getting it right away, even at night and on weekends. Newark promises to deliver water to those with a need, if they call and ask. Delivery can take days.

Flint has replaced almost all its lead lines, working off a 30-page instruction manual that tells contractors how to do it right, a touchy task since the construction itself can stir up lead, and this has only been done on a large scale in a few cities. “We know nothing about how Newark’s system is going to play out on all that,” Chaudhary says.

Finding all the lead lines was another major challenge in Flint, as it will be in Newark as well. The city says it will replace 18,000 lines over three years, but even the state has cautioned that city records may not be accurate. That, too, was a collaborative effort in Flint, under the court’s supervision.

Murphy promised during his 2017 campaign to launch a major effort against lead poisoning, and he has taken some steps. He helped Newark launch its effort to replace lead lines with $12 million of state aid, and the promise of up to $75 million. Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo bonded for $120 million more, which will come at low interest, thanks to the county’s high bond rating. Murphy also ended the Christie’s administration’s diversion of $10 million in tax revenue that was earmarked for lead paint remediation, though legislators say most of that money hasn’t been spent, a claim the administration would not confirm or deny by deadline.

And before Newark, there were other failures. A legislative task force in 2018 urged an ambitious plan to combat lead poisoning from water, including big infusions into a state fund to help finance lead line replacement. That recommendation, like several others, has been ignored.

“That’s fair to say,” says Assemblyman John McKeon, a Democrat from Essex County who is a big supporter of Murphy’s. “We have a long way to go, and it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Newark is just the first.”

Another Democrat, Rep. Josh Gottheimer, is frustrated at what he says is the state’s failure to enforce a law requiring public schools to test their water and post the results online. He’s begged Murphy to collect this data and post it on a state website that would be easy for parents to navigate. No luck so far.

“To parents, it’s frustrating,” Gottheimer says.

This track record, of course, does not inspire confidence. And that’s another reason I’m rooting for the NRDC in this fight – a judge would be keeping watch, for years, long after the political heat has subsided.

“The biggest piece of this is that you have the court as backup if something goes wrong,” Chaudhary says. “And we’ve been back to court in Flint many times over the years.”

Yes, for Murphy and Baraka, the oversight would be a political challenge. They’d have to do the job right, and if they screwed it up, we’d all know about it right away. But lead is a nasty toxin that damages the brain permanently, and that’s got to take precedence over the politics. This is not time for the governor to declare victory and turn down the help that proved so critical in Flint.

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