Newark residents sue city over handling of lead-contaminated water

History teacher Al Moussab is one of the Newark residents suing his city over lead in its water.

“We live here and we want to make sure that the water that my children drink are clean as well, besides you know, those of my students,” he said.

Moussab says his family – including two young children – drink their tap water because it’s been tested. But his concern goes beyond his own family.

“Also create a larger movement to raise the awareness that these natural resources are not a privilege, they’re a right for working people and that we need to fight for those rights,” Moussab said.

Water testing has shown elevated levels of lead in city homes once the water goes through old pipes. While Mayor Ras Baraka insists Newark is no Flint, Michigan, a February email showed Newark’s way of preventing lead from the corrosion of old plumbing from getting in to the distribution system wasn’t working. There were no alerts to the public. Instead, for months, the city insisted its water was absolutely safe to drink. The Natural Resources Defense Council is suing the city over lead in the water.

“At that point, the city should have started this filter distribution program, at a minimum, and alerted people, and been forthcoming about the problem of lead in the tap water,” said Mae Wu, senior staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The city gave out filers in October when it got results of that earlier testing and insists it did the right thing. The city would not provide any one on camera for this report but issued statement from its consultant CDM Smith. The statement reads: “These findings were preliminary as additional studies and evaluation was [sic] needed in order to comprehensively understand the system and make sound recommendations. Water chemistry is highly complex. Serious consequences could have resulted if corrective action was taken prior to completing a thorough evaluation.”

Advocates and medical doctors insist lead at any level should not be consumed — especially for babies, developing children and pregnant women. In the East Ward, there were major concerns over test results.

“We know that there are homes in the East Ward that have lead levels. They may not all have lead levels that exceed 15, although some do, but they have lead in them,” said Moussab.

In October, at the event announcing water filters for part of the city, the mayor said, “When you make a statement that the drinking water is not safe, it is yelling fire in a crowded room, and is in fact an incorrect statement. The drinking water is safe. There are parts of the city that do not need filters.”

But, Friday the Natural Resources Defense Council asked a federal judge to force the city to immediately give the same water filters to residents of the East Ward, insisting it’s not a political issue.

“It’s a question of health and safety. It’s a question of making sure that their residents have access to clean and safe water,” said Wu.

The council and the city will square off over the issue in federal court Tuesday.

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