Officials address Newark water crisis amid chorus of residents’ complaints

State and city officials gathered in Newark Wednesday to discuss steps they were taking after lead contamination was discovered in filtered city water, amid a rising chorus of complaints among residents of the state’s largest city about how the crisis has been handled thus far.

Gov. Phil Murphy, who toured one of the city’s four water distribution centers, said the state has brought 70,000 cases of bottled water for distribution to those in affected areas — those served by the city’s Pequannock water system. He also said he’s been in touch with Anheuser Busch and Pepsi to provide more.

But, he said, the state needed help from Washington.

“We will do everything we can. I know the mayor is doing everything we can,” Murphy said during a press conference at the city’s Department of Health, “We need the federal government to do their share and to punch their weight.”

“Clean water is a right — not a privilege — for everybody,” the governor added. “And we believe that with great passion.”

Recent tests of three homes showed that water filters distributed by the city to rid tap water of lead had failed to function properly in two cases. The federal Environmental Protection Agency ordered Newark to provide bottled water until it could conduct more widespread filter tests.

Catherine McCabe, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection said she would be meeting on Thursday in Washington D.C with officials at the federal Environmental Protection Agency to agree on how more widespread testing of city tap water should be conducted.

“There are very important and very technically complex issues about how you test,” she said. “And there’s also the question of how many samples do you need to take — water samples, citywide — to get a scientifically representative picture of whether there’s a widespread problem.”

“We absolutely do not have enough information one way or another to determine whether the filters are working or not,” said Mayor Ras Baraka. “In the meantime, we’re going to give out water until we’re about to make those determinations.”

The health alert applies to some 14,000 homes connected to the Pequannock system by a lead service line.

The elevated lead readings came as a surprise. The filters in place, manufactured by the PUR company, are nationally rated to remove lead up to 150 parts per billion. But the test results showed that raw water had lead content beyond the filter’s capacity.

“If the concentrations of lead are higher than that, we’re sort of into uncharted territory as to how well the filters will work — or whether they’ll work,” said Rick Andrew, director of water systems at NSF, an independent organization that certifies water filtration systems like the ones used in Newark.

Complaints continue to build among city residents about how the crisis is being handled. In addition to delays and long waits for bottled water, robocalls and other PR efforts aren’t always connecting.

“We’re having a crisis in Newark right now, with the lead in the water,” said Cyrano Green. “I got five kids.”

Residents said they were getting mixed messages. City officials warned them to stop relying on the water filters, which they’ve been distributing since last November, but they’re continuing to hand them out.

“I’m still kind of skeptical about it because if they’re testing it and it’s still not working, how good is the filter, truly?” said Taisha Spellman.

In at least one case, the complaints extended to a call for Baraka to resign.

“The mayor’s resignation. We want him to step down,” said community activist Donna Jackson. “He’s been lying to people for three years.”

For now, there’s no end date to the bottled-water directive. It’ll continue, officials say, until they get the results of a larger lead filter survey.

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