Newark Hits Milestone In Water Crisis


Lead levels in the drinking water in Newark, New Jersey, are finally meeting federal limits, city officials say. 

But that doesn’t necessarily mean the city’s drinking water is completely lead-free. 

“This is not our way of saying this is over,” Baraka said during a Thursday press conference as the city celebrated the lower lead levels. “It’s our opportunity to share good news in the spirit of all of the craziness that’s been going on for a long time.”

Newark first recorded elevated lead levels in its schools in 2016. Then higher amounts of the contaminant were detected inside single and multi-family homes in 2017. At first, the lead levels were nearly double the allowable federal threshold. Then, they increased to nearly four times the limit. 

Listen to Karen Yi’s report on WNYC:

The high lead levels prompted a federal lawsuit from the Natural Resources Defense Council and led to a mass distribution of water filters. That culminated last summer when the city was ordered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to distribute bottled water after the filters’ effectiveness was questioned (the filters were eventually found to be 99 percent effective). 

Now, Baraka says for the first time in three years most of the city’s tap water samples are below the federal threshold of 15 parts per billion. No level of lead is safe but if more than 10 percent of water samples have more than 15 parts per billion of lead, federal law requires cities take action.

Stata data show of the city’s 172 samples submitted from Jan. – June 2020, less than 10 percent were over the federal action level, with the 90th percentile at 14.1 parts per billion. 

Baraka says it’s a milestone. 

Kareem Adeem in a mask stands at a lectern at an outside press conference in Newark

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Kareem Adeem, Newark’s director of water and sewer, talks Thursday about the city’s efforts to lower lead levels in its drinking water.

Karen Yi / WNYC

“This moment is what we’ve been working toward, a moment when we can say our water is in compliance with lead and copper rule, where the facts speak for themselves,” he said. 

The state Department of Environmental Protection still has to review the city’s water samples and said in a statement it will likely determine the city’s compliance by the end of the month. But Newark officials claim the drop in lead shows its new water treatment that began last May is working.

Lead gets into the city’s tap water when it flakes off thin tubes made of lead that pump water from underground water mains to individual homes. The water flowing through them was previously treated with chemicals that were supposed to create a protective coating inside these lead pipes but failed to do so. The city began using a new mix of chemicals last year to make the water less corrosive and keep the lead from dissolving into it. Officials also launched a $134 million project to replace all 18,000 lead pipes.   

Kareem Adeem, the director of the city’s water and sewer department, noted that 12,600 lead service lines have already been replaced and the project will be complete by 2021.

“The city residents came together even during the COVID-19 period, they cooperated with us,” he said during a press conference on Thursday. “The contractors suited up with the masks, the Tyvek suits, the booties, everything to go in the house and replace the lead service lines.”

State data show some homes still have elevated lead levels. City officials say all 172 homes that were tested were high risk and still have lead service lines. But not all residents trust what the city says. Debra Salters says that’s because officials repeatedly insisted Newark’s water was safe to drink — when it wasn’t.

“This would really give us trust, if [the administration] simply said we were wrong,” Salters, who is part of the ongoing NRDC suit, said. 

State records show Newark still has another contaminant in its water: haloacetic acids, a contaminant that if consumed over time can cause cancer. Officials say that will be fixed soon, too.

The larger problem is the aging infrastructure at the Pequannock water treatment plant, one of Newark’s two plants that pumps water to half the city and its surrounding suburbs. Improvements at the Pequannock facility in West Milford that were recommended years ago are currently underway.

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