Expanded testing of Newark water shows lead filters are working

Follow-up testing of Newark’s water shows that tap filters installed in properties known to have lead service lines are working in the vast majority of cases to keep levels of the dangerous element below a key federal benchmark, officials said Monday.

The tests were ordered after results from two of three properties showed lead readings well beyond the federal “action” level despite the presence of the filters, which are generally considered to be effective at reducing lead contamination. News of the contamination roiled the state’s largest city, bringing national news crews to its streets as officials distributed bottled water in the areas where the problematic service lines are concentrated.

In the expanding testing, a total of 1,700 samples taken from 300 properties equipped with tap filters showed that the devices, manufactured by the PUR company, were reducing lead contamination below 10 parts per billion 97% of the time — and 99% when taps were run for five minutes or more.

The federal benchmark — 15 parts per billion — denotes the level at which water suppliers should take steps to reduce lead in the water. But the government also says that no level of water in safe in drinking water, especially for children.

“We thank God that the filters work,” said Mayor Ras Baraka at a news conference where he was joined by Gov. Phil Murphy, Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo, Jr. and other state and local officials. “But we are not in any way having a victory lap, because this is not a victory for us. It is good news in a long and arduous task to make sure we have clean drinking water.”

The results are preliminary and the study — a partnership of the city, the state Department of Environmental Protection, and the federal Environmental Protection Agency — will finalized in coming weeks, officials said.

Baraka said residents should feel confident in drinking filtered tap water.

“If the filters work, everyone should use filtered water,” he said, noting that, for the time being, city officials will continue to distribute bottled water, although he wants to phase it out.

“We still hate the idea that we have to give out water — but we must do that, until we figured out if those filters actually worked,” he said.

Officials also announced Monday that the DEP is providing $1 million to assist Newark in putting together a team to educate residents on the proper use of the filters and in how to collect water samples. The money will go for recruiting and training the members of the team, which officials hope to draw from community and philanthropic organizations as well as faith-based groups.

“So many people don’t know how to use the filter. They don’t know that there’s a switch to turn on. They don’t know to run the water first,” said Kim Gaddy, an organizer with the Clean Water Action advocacy group. “So it is technical. And without the community members and educational component, it won’t help.”

As a long-term solution, Newark is tapping a $120-million county bond to replace approximately 18,000 lead lines serving individual properties across the city, and in Hillside and Belleville where customers get their water from Newark and are billed by the city. Newark has replaced 900 lines so far, and the bond proceeds will pay for the work at no cost to participating homeowners, and to cut the time needed to complete all the replacements from a decade to no more than three years, officials say.

Newark is also adding a corrosion-control chemical, orthophosphate, to water drawn from its Pequannock water system, to prevent lead leeching from the service lines. Officials hope that treatments will be fully in place and effective by spring.

“We’re going to dial back gradually, once we believe the orthophosphate is working.” Baraka said of the city’s bottled-water distribution.

The need to drink bottled water has been arduous for residents in the affected areas, some 14,000 homes served by the city’s Pequannock system.

“The whole experience has been a bit traumatizing for the city,” said Ron Wise.

“We know there has been a high level of anxiety among the people, and we know it is a big burden to be carrying bottled water up and down the stairs for a family,” said DEP Commissioner Catherine McCabe, who also was part of Monday’s news conference.

Baraka, his administration and others have come under sharp criticism in some quarters for its handling of the crisis, but at least some residents on Monday said they believed officials had acted quickly.

“The city’s doing the best that they could do,” said Tim Saunders. “And I appreciate the mayor and the governor getting on this as soon as possible.”

At the same time the Natural Resources Defense Council, which sued the city over its response to water-safety concerns, on Monday called for transparency with the expanded testing.

The city “should provide all test results and the protocols used to test the filters to the public, so Newark residents can feel confident that filters will protect their health. Anything less than full transparency will breed further distrust and skepticism,” the group said.

RELATED: Newark’s Lead Crisis | Collection

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