At town hall, Newark officials defend response to water safety crisis

A meeting that had been billed as a town hall on the “State of the Water” in Newark instead became a platform for officials to defend their response to the problem of lead contamination in the city’s drinking water and Mayor Ras Baraka and other officials came prepared with a vigorous defense against criticism that they had failed the test of timeliness and transparency.

Newark has had a long-standing problem of lead contamination in its drinking water, stemming from service lines leading to individual properties. Public fears spiked late this summer when a small sample of tests detected lead levels beyond a federal benchmark in water drawn from homes equipped with lead filters the city had distributed.

The news drew crews from national media outlets, as city officials handed out bottled water and more expansive testing were done, which showed the filters to be effective in 97% of cases, and 99% of the time when taps are flushed for five minutes.

Among those on hand Wednesday to praise Baraka and his administration was the commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection.

“I wish all our, I’m not sure whether you’re quite customers, but all of our regulated water systems were quite as responsive as Newark had been in this situation,” said Catherine McCabe to those attending the event, at NJPAC.

The state’s former health commissioner echoed the sentiment.

“This city and this mayor have been nothing but cooperative with the Department of Health, when I was there,” said Shereef Elnahal, who’s now the CEO of University Hospital in Newark.

While some in the audience seemed to accept the explanations, others were less generous, including one man who shouted “Water ain’t good” at the panel.

“You have to do more explaining,” said Syrah Scott, who founded the National Clean Water Collective four years ago amid the lead crisis in Flint, Michigan. “I feel truly that the people have been a little bamboozled by this meeting that took place.”

Baraka maintained that Newark has outperformed any other city facing this issue. It has tested its own water, repeatedly self-reported elevated lead levels, corrected faulty corrosion control, given residents bottled water and filters, and ultimately struck deals to speed up replacing lead service lines with copper ones at no cost to homeowners and taxpayers, he said.

This week, the city and the Port Authority announced a settlement that will pay the city $155 million over 30 years, and Baraka said the money will be used pay the debt service on a county-backed loan Newark tapped to fully fund the replacement of thousands of the lead service lines connecting individual properties to the city water supply. Crews are already at work.

Baraka called the criticism unwarranted and pernicious, in that it was eroding public trust in government.

“What I will never concede is that the mayor purposefully and deliberately lied,” he said, “purposefully and deliberately hid something that we told you about a full year before.”

Before the town hall, the city hosted a health fair at NJPAC, offering tips on installing water filters, taking sign-ups for replacement of service lines, and giving out mops, pails and cleaning solution for homeowners to use to remove any lead dust in their homes.

Dr. Mark Wake, the city health director, said lead-laden paint chips in homes pose a bigger threat to public health than lead in water and he urged residents to take advantage of free blood testing being offered by the city.

“Now we have the information that allows us to take advantage of the curative services should an elevated lead level be detected,” he said.

One advocate advised parents to ask questions about the in-home daycare centers their children may attend.

“Make sure when you drop your child off, you ask that they’re using their filter, are they replacing it as they should,” said Chris Sturm, managing director of policy and water at New Jersey Future. “Are they flushing the water? That’s so critical.”

NJ Future says an ongoing tally shows there are at least 161,000 lead lines in 104 water systems in the state. It urges residents everywhere to request water testing and results.

Baraka said that, with the follow-up tests showing that the tap filters are working, the city is planning to scale back its bottled-water distribution. That will also help reverse a 25% drop in water usage in the city which is hindering another step the city is taking — adding a corrosion-control chemical to the water supply to suppress lead contamination until all the service lines can be replaced.

“We’re going to fix this problem of eroding trust,” he said.

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