Elevated lead levels in Newark water have advocates worried

It’s a dispute that boils down to this: Is Newark complying with EPA rules for lead in the city’s drinking water?

“Well, right now, the city is not in compliance,” said Kim Gaddy, Clean Water Action environmental justice organizer.

“Well, the city was in compliance,” said Andrea Hall Adebowale, director of Newark Department of Water and Sewer Utilities.

Twice a year, Newark must test the drinking water at homes with lead services lines from the street to the homes. Results this year of 129 samples, show lead levels off the charts at some houses, five of them higher than 50 parts per billion. One at 137 parts per billion, more than nine times the EPA action level of 15 parts per billion. The overall average: 27 parts per billion and in July the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) wrote Newark had failed the EPA’s compliance test and violated New Jersey’s Safe Drinking Water Act and required the city to take action:

“And unfortunately, the levels that I’ve seen in some of the tests, we’re as close as Flint was. So that’s why I think, it’s scary,” said Gaddy.

“We take this very seriously,” said Adebowale.

Newark launched a public awareness campaign. It informed homeowners of the elevated levels and invited thousands of water customers to two “tele-town” meetings sharing by phone the same information it mailed to them with their water bills, which listed a series of warnings, do’s and don’ts and the dangers of ingesting lead and the harm it can do to children and pregnant women. It’s the kind of harm researchers now say they’ve uncovered to Flint, Michigan, residents who drank lead-poisoned water – higher rates of fetal deaths and miscarriages and falling fertility rates.

Newark says any comparison to Flint Michigan, of lead test results, is far from fair.

“We’re not comparing apples to apples. In Flint, Michigan, the water that left their plant was contaminated with lead because of the change of the source of their water. In Newark, we don’t have that issue. Our water exceeds federal and state standards. It’s safe to drink. Unfortunately, when it gets to the tap, it’s that service line between the main and the home that has the lead contamination,” said Adebowale.

In July, the state DEP wrote because of the city’s elevated lead levels that the “Newark Water Department is deemed to no longer have optimized corrosion control treatment.” Newark responded that it’s improved water treatment and the state will study the impact for six months.

Newark says the elevated levels are throughout the city in houses built before 1986 and, before clean water advocates demanded it, the city began offering residents free lead testing at the city health department, and free inspections and testing of the water lines from the street to private houses.

When asked if residents have been taking up the city on the offer, Adebowale replied, “Yes, we’re bombarded with requests everyday. ”

Newark says it plans to start replacing those private lines next spring through state loans with 90 percent forgiveness and the other ten percent interest-free. Newark has until the end of November to give the state the list of addresses. City Hall says it’s well aware of the criticisms of clean water advocates and it will meet with them next week.

Next month, the city’s water director plans to meet with the Natural Resources Defense Council. This week, the director met with the national grassroots Clean Water Action and accepted its offer to partner with the city on public education.

“We don’t want to just raise the issue. We want to resolve the issue, too,” said Gaddy.

Any level of lead in drinking water is considered unacceptable, especially to advocates who honored a handful of state lawmakers with high scores for championing clean air and water through legislation.

“Clean water is not only a basic need but it should be a basic right because too many of our children are being infected with lead poisoning and that is something that can be prevented,” said Sen. Shirley Turner, who represents Mercer County.

Newark’s water director agrees. “Newark is in the forefront. We’re trying to educate our constituents. At the same time, we don’t want to alarm them because there’s nothing wrong with our water. It’s only in certain homes where they may be affected and just because you have a lead service line doesn’t mean that there’s lead in your water or that you will exceed that action level,” said Adebowale.

“And if it was only a sampling when is the whole city going to be tested? So, those are the real crucial questions we have to get answers to and that’s why I say it’s all about transparency. You have to let people know that you are erring on the side of precaution,” said Gaddy.

The city says it knows the criticism of its response to elevated lead levels will flow as freely as the water through its mains, but it’s working to comply with state and federal guidelines to keep and make its water safe to drink.

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