Lead concerns spread to towns that share Newark’s water supply

Fears about water safety have spread beyond Newark, where federal officials have ordered the city to supply bottled water to residents after tests showed filters installed to remove lead from tap water were not working.

Newark’s Pequannock Water System serves all of Bloomfield and Belleville, some 430 homes in Nutley and all of Pequannock Township, in addition to the western part of the city — a half-million people in all.

Bloomfield has distributed more than 3,000 PUR filters to residents over the past 18 months because of elevated lead levels resulting from corrosion and contamination problems in the Newark system. Now residents share the same concern as their neighbors in Newark that those filters might not be removing enough lead.

“We haven’t really gotten a straight answer,” said Bloomfield resident Justine Pecora. “So our concern is, what’s really going on? What’s really in our water? What’s happening in our bodies?”

“I mean, they’re comparing it to Flint, Michigan so that’s scary,” said resident Kelly Nazarian.

State officials have trucked 70,000 cases of bottled water into Newark this week, and at news conferences, officials promised large-scale testing and swift action in the state’s largest city.

But other towns tapping into the Pequannock system didn’t get a federal bottled water directive. Belleville’s trying to buy its own lead test kits and filters — but the mayor feels marginalized.

“We kind of just sit here, some of the outer reaching municipalities, and say, OK, but we’re also a customer, so are we included in that?” said Belleville Mayor Michael Melham. “And we have not gotten any definitive answer on that. We understand what you’re doing for Newark, but what is it that’s going to be done for Belleville?”

In Bloomfield, officials selected samples from five homes equipped with PUR filters and sent them to the state Department of Environmental Protection for testing. Expedited results are due Friday to determine whether there is a problem with the filters there, too.

“At this point, we had a conference call with the DEP on Tuesday, and they feel we do not need to give out bottled water,” said Mayor Michael Venezia.

Bloomfield also offered free lead tests to residents — and got a huge response.

“So far this week, we’ve had a little over 200 and we hope to get that number up even higher, just so we can gauge how many households are having issues with lead,” Venezia said.

Bloomfield has about 11,000 dwellings built before 1986, when laws banned lead water service lines. Officials suspect perhaps 95% could have some lead leaching from the old service lines that run between the mains and the houses. Tests show lead levels average 20 parts per billion — but can spike to over 100 ppb. The EPA’s action level is 15 ppb, but the agency cautions that no lead level is safe in water.

“I’d say anywhere around 10% of the houses that are tested do have high lead levels. That’s when we go out and we fix them,” Venezia said.

The town borrowed $1 million from the state to replace old lead service lines. It’s fixed 46 so far, with 20 more on the existing to-do list. It’s also borrowing $2.4 million to build a pumping station that will let it connect to a different drinking water source.

In the Pequannock water system high levels of two disinfectant chemicals have also been detected in the water.

Among residents with concerns about lead in the water, patience is running thin.

“I have families that live around here that have young children,” said Justine Pecora, the Bloomfield resident. “A family across the street is getting a whole filtration system put in because they’re just nervous. They don’t know what’s going to come up next.”

Bloomfield will hold a public forum on Aug. 19. Officials hope to have some test results on the water filters and some answers for residents.

We’re in this together
For a better-informed future. Support our nonprofit newsroom.
Donate to NJ Spotlight