Newark residents have first day in court over lead in water

Briana Vannozzi, Anchor | December 18, 2018 | Health Care

Elevated levels of lead in Newark’s drinking water have lead to a federal lawsuit and an emergency request for action from the city.

Right off the bat, Judge Esther Salas accused both sides of using “gamesmanship” in the case, saying the plaintiffs are magnifying the issue while the defendants downsize it.

The judge ran through a litany of questions during the hourslong hearing Tuesday afternoon, particularly over the data used to show Newark residents in the Wanaque service area — not just the Pequannock — are at risk of lead contamination in their drinking water.

Newark has insisted it handed out filters to residents in the Pequannock service area because that was the only section affected by elevated lead levels due to pH changes from the water treatment site. But the Natural Resource Defense Council, which represents the residents suing the city, says state documents show the two water sources blend and that puts residents in the East Ward in harm’s way.

“I take this issue very seriously. This is not a game to me, this is not a joke. There are people’s lives potentially at risk. But unless we can prove that residents in the area of Wanaque are in jeopardy, we’re not likely to have the result or ruling you’re requesting,” Salas said.

Plaintiffs referenced a study showing 50 percent of 180 East Ward homes monitored had dangerous levels of lead in their water. But Salas grew frustrated saying she can’t rule based on individual home readings, the law requires aggregate numbers.

“If you’ve got a smoking gun on this then give me what you have,” Salas said. “We can’t say something is happening without support that it’s happening.”

But plaintiffs argued the city dragged its feet responding to the initial crisis, and referenced Newark’s failure to perform what’s known as the lead and copper rule sampling in 2016. It said out of the 21,000 lead and copper service lines the city, it struggled to get 100 volunteers to sample, leading Salas to ask the defense, “Wouldn’t it be prudent to provide water filters to residents in the Wanaque area, if there is any indication of risk? What’s the downside to doing that?”

“Your Honor, filters aren’t free. And this is a city with limited resources. Using resources the best way it sees fit,” defense attorney Eric Klein replied.

Klein went on to say by handing out filters to every household the city runs the risk of “causing panic” for areas when the water is safe to drink. Late Tuesday, the judge denied the emergency request for action, but, representatives for the NRDC said the judge’s ruling won’t indicate a win or a loss for this case. There’s plenty more to come.

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