All eyes are on Newark as mayor insists he didn’t hide lead problem from residents

Res Baraka denied he downplayed the issue but said he didn't know it was widespread.

As the city of Newark faces heightened national attention over elevated lead levels in its drinking water, Mayor Ras Baraka on Thursday defended the city’s actions and messaging before a crush of media. 

He said it was “BS” that he deliberately misled residents. 

Responding to allegations that the city spent months downplaying the issue, Baraka said he didn’t know it was a “widespread problem” until last month when outside experts found the city’s water treatment wasn’t working.

City officials had initially blamed old pipes for the high lead levels but in October announced the water treatment at one of its reservoirs was ineffective, and began distributing 40,000 water filters to vulnerable residents. 

Last month’s city-commissioned study found Newark’s corrosion control treatment was no longer creating a protective coating inside old pipes to prevent lead from leaching into the water. 

Baraka said that’s when he knew that “this was not an anomaly, that this was not 12, 14, 20 homes that are affected.”

“We began to go right into what we thought we should do the minute we found out it was a widespread problem,” he said. 

Newark has reported elevated levels of lead in its drinking water since 2017 but was catapulted into the national spotlight last week after The New York Times drew comparisons to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and said the city was negligent in telling residents the extent of the problem. 

Baraka said Newarkers were informed of the lead problem — as required by state law — starting last summer when lead levels spiked.

Referring to a robocall that went out to residents in April that called the water safe, Baraka said, “we weren’t saying that the water coming out of your tap was safe … it said the source water is fine. After that, we explained what the problem is. It’s misleading to tell people that the water is contaminated.”

While city officials have never denied there were elevated levels of lead in its drinking water, a message posted to the city’s website in April insisted “Newark’s water is absolutely safe to drink.” 

That message has been deleted. 

Lead testing

Lead is measured in parts per billion. Although no amount of lead in water is safe, lead concentration should not exceed the federal action level of 15 parts per billion. 

Since 2017, Newark has been required to test about 100 sample sites every six months; if more than 10 percent of the samples exceed the federal threshold, officials must inform residents of the violation.

The last six-month period from January to June of this year shows 12 percent of samples contained lead over the accepted federal level. One July sample recorded lead levels at 250 parts per billion — more than 16 times the federal action level, data show. 

The Natural Resources Defense Council sued Newark in June, alleging the city wasn’t doing enough to protect residents. Baraka on Thursday alleged that the NRDC took Newark to court only because the city refused to sign a memorandum of agreement that would have allowed the nonprofit to monitor its compliance. 

An NRDC representative denied those claims calling them “mind-boggling” and said the nonprofit is not in the business of running municipal water systems.

Planned fixes

More than 270,000 Newark residents drink the city’s water that comes from two sources, the Wanaque Water System and the Pequannock Water System. 

The city is only changing its corrosion control at the Pequannock system that services every ward except the East Ward. The Wanaque water treatment plant, which serves the East Ward and parts of the North, Central and South wards, remains with an effective corrosion control. 

map.jpgA map of the areas served by the Wanaque water treatment system in Newark. (Courtesy: City of Newark)
 

City officials said East Ward residents are not affected.

Kareem Adeem, the city’s deputy director of water and sewer, accused a former, disgruntled employee of tampering with one of the water samples in the East Ward and causing a spike there. 

Those with lead service lines, elevated levels of lead, pregnant women or families with children under the age of six can receive a free water filter. So far, 13,000 filters have been distributed. 

A $75 million bond program will help replace between 15,000 and 18,000 lead service lines for residents, who will have to pay a maximum of $1,000 each to replace service lines on their property. 

Dr. Mark Wade, director of the health department, said the city is continuing to offer lead contamination testing for children, who are among the most at-risk of being affected by elevated levels of lead.

Wade said the largest source of increased lead contamination in children is lead-based paint chips, not water.

Baraka also held a moment of silence Thursday for Andrea Hall Adebowale, director of water and sewer utilities, who died Wednesday. 

Karen Yi may be reached at kyi@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Twitter at @karen_yi or on Facebook

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