Newark Residents Win Drinking Water Protections in New Settlement

Newark Residents Win Drinking Water Protections in New Settlement
A pallet of bottled water is delivered to a recreation centre on August 13, 2019 in Newark, New Jersey. Residents of Newark, the largest city in New Jersey, received free water after lead was found in the tap water. (Photo: Spencer Platt, Getty Images)
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Newark, New Jersey has reached a settlement with environmental justice advocates who sued the city over its pipes leaching lead into residents’ water supply.

On Tuesday morning, the city of Newark signed off on the proposed agreement, as did the two advocacy groups — Newark Education Workers Caucus and the Natural Resources Defence Council — who brought the citizen suit in 2018. A federal judge signed off on the agreement late on Tuesday afternoon, granting it final approval.

“We’re pretty happy it’s settled, we’re excited about that,” said Yvette Jordan, a high school teacher and chair of the Newark Education Workers Caucus, which is a group of members of the Newark Teachers Union and the Newark community.

The settlement requires the city to make a “diligent” effort to identify and replace all service lines that contain lead. In 2019, officials began a process to replace 18,000 lead pipes by spring 2021 amid fierce public pressure from organisers. Officials say they have replaced 17,000 lead service lines so far as part of the $US120 ($155)-million plan, and will have completed the project on time. But “there could be more,” lines out there, Margie Kelly, strategic communications manager for Natural Resources Defence Council, said in an email.

Under the new agreement, officials must also provide residents with free drinking water test kits and filters. The city is also required to hold in-person and online forums to educate residents about the importance of properly installing, replacing, and maintaining filter cartridges, and maintain a multilingual website for residents to learn about their eligibility for line replacement, the city’s filter distribution system, and water testing results for every Newark water consumer.

“That education piece is key,” said Jordan.

Newark is a majority-Black city home to 282,000 people, about a quarter of whom live below the federal poverty line. Environmental justice groups have spent years raising the alarm about lead exposure in Newark, which is the result of ageing, corroded water infrastructure. The issue came to a head in 2015 when the Environmental Protection Agency informed the city that its water filters were not working, and officials handed out more than 70,000 cases of bottled water, evoking comparisons to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, another majority-Black and working class city.

In 2019, the National Resources Defence Council found that that some homes in Newark had lead levels as high as 953 parts per billion, which is almost 64 times the federal action level of 15 parts per billion. Many residents, including Jordan, saw far lower levels of contamination, but still well above the action level.

“My husband and I live here, and when we had our water tested, our lead levels were almost three times higher than the federal action level,” she remembered.

Even exposure levels lower than the federal action limit can be dangerous. According to the World Health Organisation, even blood lead concentrations as low as 5 parts per billion have been linked to developmental issues in children.

“There is no safe level of lead,” Erik Olsen, senior strategic director for health at National Resources Defence Council, said.

Jordan said that children are among the residents of Newark who will benefit most from the newly reached settlement, since they are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of exposure. To help make sure kids and Newark residents stay safe, she said she’ll be keeping an eye on the city’s progress.

“We’re going to monitor and make sure the education process is happening for residents,” she said.