NJ Spotlight

The city of Newark and the acting commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection are facing a court battle over unsafe levels of lead in drinking water.

With lead levels in supplies nearly twice the federal action level for the contaminant, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Newark Education Workers Caucus yesterday announced plans to sue the government for violating the federal safe drinking-water law.

In 2017, more than 10 percent of samples collected by the Newark Water Department show lead levels in excess of 26 parts per billion (ppb), nearly double the federal action level of 15 ppb under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Approximately 20 percent of the samples exceeded the 15 ppb federal action level, according to the groups.

No exposure

Newark called the allegations false, disputing that residents are exposed to dangerous levels of lead.

“The truth is that the water supplied by the city is fully compliant with federal and state regulations,’’ said Andrea Adebowale, director of water for Newark. “The claimant has seriously misinterpreted the findings.’’

Newark’s problems with lead in drinking water are not a new issue. Over two years ago, unsafe levels of lead were found in drinking water in more than 30 schools, leading the city to shut down drinking fountains and bring bottled water in.

“Newark’s lead levels are shockingly high. Access to safe drinking water is particularly important in low-income communities of color, where residents often face multiple sources of exposure and stressors on their health from environmental burdens,’’ said Sara Imperiale, an NRDC environmental justice attorney.

Lead leaching from old fixtures

In a notice of intent to sue, a procedural move, the two groups argued the city has failed to respond comprehensively to the problems that have been documented with lead in Newark’s water system. Most of the problems are due to lead leaching from old service lines or other fixtures in the water infrastructure, not the quality of water from the Newark Water Department.

“It’s unacceptable that the city and state would consider providing billions of dollars in tax breaks to welcome corporations to Newark, while failing to address health-threatening infrastructure issues like this for its residents,’’ said Al Moussab, a resident of Newark and the president of NEW Caucus, a group of educators who teach in Newark’s public schools.

But Adebowale argued while the city has received a violation of lead levels, it has been compliant with state and federal rules for dealing with those violations and has met all required milestones. Those include sending out public notification and educational materials.

The DEP just received the notification of intent to sue, according to Larry Hajna, a spokesman. The department continues to work closely with the Newark Water Department to ensure that all necessary steps are to address any issues of lead action-level exceedance and to bring the water system into compliance, he said.

Besides the lawsuit, the NRDC and NEW Caucus filed a complaint against the city seeking access to public records under New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act. Access to public records is essential to holding agencies accountable for providing safe drinking water to Newark’s residents, according to the groups.

Last September, 11 Newark-based community groups and national organizations sent a letter to Newark officials expressing concerns that the city had failed to comprehensively deal with the lead problems.

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