Environmentalists sue Newark for violating drinking water law

Elevated lead levels have been found in the drinking water in Newark,  prompting legal action from an environmental group that alleges the city and state aren’t doing enough to protect residents.

The lead levels in Newark, New Jersey, are a threat to the city’s residents — and city and state officials have failed to take action to address the problem, as required under the Safe Drinking Water Act, so Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Newark Education Workers Caucus (NEW Caucus) announced their intent to sue the city, as well as city and state officials.

NRDC and NEW Caucus point out multiple ways the city is violating the law, such as selecting testing sites that were less likely to have high lead concentrations, failing to properly control pipe corrosion, failing to evaluate the materials in their water system (including the failure to prepare an inventory of its lead service lines), and not providing its residents with information on the health effects of lead, or how to get tested.

“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.

“Levels of toxic metal in Newark’s drinking water are among the highest in the country but instead of cleaning up the water, government officials are willing to bribe Amazon $7 billion to build a warehouse in the city,” said Lisa McCormick, the progressive challenging Sen. Robert Menendez in the June 5 Democratic primary. “Bob Menendez has had 25 years in Congress and not long ago, Senator Cory Booker was the mayor of Newark, so there is no excuse for children in the ecity to be drinking polluted water.”

In 2017, 10 percent of water samples collected by the city showed lead levels above 26 parts per billion, nearly twice the federal action level of 15 parts per billion. About 20 percent of the city’s samples showed lead levels above the 15 parts per billion federal action level—with some samples coming in at three, even nine times higher.

Particularly concerning is that Newark has had the greatest number of lead-poisoned children in New Jersey for years, and testing revealed that 30 public schools recently had elevated lead levels in their drinking water.

“Newark’s lead levels are shockingly high,” said Sara Imperiale, an environmental justice attorney at NRDC. “Safe drinking water should not be a luxury. 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.”

Lead exposure has serious and irreversible health impacts, like fertility problems, nervous system damage, and cognitive dysfunction, among other issues. Pregnant women and children are particularly vulnerable. There is no safe level of lead exposure.

“This is a serious violation of the public trust,” said Yvette Jordan, a Newark resident and member of NEW Caucus. “I’m concerned about my health and what this exposure means for my students, since even low levels of lead can impair children’s brain development.”

In Newark, at least 10% of nearly 300 water samples tested last year showed lead contamination in excess of 26.7 parts per billion, above the federal action level of 15 parts per billion, according to state records. Lead has also been found in drinking water tested this year, with several samples showing high levels of contamination.

The group wants more information about Newark’s water-testing practices and how it is informing residents of the health risks posed by lead contamination.

“These are still really disturbingly high lead levels that we’re seeing,” Imperiale said. “We don’t have any reason to believe that steps have been taken to protect the public in ways that are necessary.”

A spokesman for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection said the agency is reviewing the NRDC’s notice and is working closely with Newark to address “any lead action level exceedance and to bring the water system into compliance.”

Newark Director of Water and Sewer Utilities Andrea Adebowale said in a statement that the NRDC’s claim that residents are exposed to dangerous lead levels in the city’s drinking water “is absolutely and outrageously false.” She said the city’s water supply is “fully compliant” with state and federal regulations.

“Our water is safe,” she said.

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