Anna Holloway’s family of six goes through about four cases of 24 plastic water bottles a week. She buys water from the ShopRite and, once a week, picks up more from St. Lucy’s Church in Newark, New Jersey, where activists from the Newark Water Coalition have been giving it out to residents for the past nine months, as the city grapples with a lead crisis.
Holloway hasn’t had her home tested for lead yet, though she said she’d follow the instructions on a flyer handed out at the church and bring a sample the next Saturday. Her new sink faucet can’t accommodate a water filter that would reduce the lead in tap water, so her family relies entirely on bottled water to stay safe. Standing in the church parking lot, two gallons of water at her feet, she said, “Sometimes it’s aggravating when we run out and we don’t notice it and we have to run to the store, but I don’t let it aggravate me.” She paused to laugh. “I can’t.”
“People are still drinking water that they shouldn’t be drinking.”
In Newark, a city of over 282,000 where about half the population is black, one-third Latino, and over one-quarter live in poverty, lead contamination has been on people’s minds for far too long. Since 2015, the city has been dealing with elevated lead levels in its drinking water, a growing crisis that hit its apex last summer, when the Environmental Protection Agency informed Newark that the filters the city had distributed to address the lead problem weren’t working. City officials gave out over 70,000 cases of bottled water; photos of residents sweating in long lines made national news, and comparisons to Flint, Michigan, abounded.
In the months that followed, there was a sense that progress was being made. In November, a city report found that the water filters the city had distributed were at least 97.5 percent effective at reducing lead, when properly installed. However, the report also found that one-quarter of filters were not properly installed or maintained — implying that owners of those filters are unknowingly drinking contaminated water, thinking it is safe. Activists and residents still have questions about the efficacy of the city’s work to stem the problem, reflecting concerns about water quality and with educating residents about how to protect themselves.
“People are still drinking water that they shouldn’t be drinking,” said Anthony Diaz, a Newark resident and co-founder of the Newark Water Coalition, a group formed in December 2018 that organizes free weekly water distribution. “People are unaware that there’s still a problem in the city of Newark and the city is maintaining this narrative, like, ‘Hey, it’s all good and we’ve done all we can.’”
In late February, Tiffany Stewart, assistant director for Newark’s Water and Sewer Utilities department, told me that the most recent lead level she had seen for the city was “around 31-32” parts per billion, or ppb. The level above which the federal government requires action to be taken out of concern for residents’ health is 15 ppb.
Photos: Demetrius Freeman for The Intercept
There is no safe level of lead. It enters water when plumbing containing lead corrodes, and in 1986, Congress banned the use of lead in water pipes over concerns about the negative health impacts. Those impacts are most severe for children, and they include a lower IQ, hyperactivity, slowed growth, hearing problems, and anemia. For adults, there’s cardiovascular effects, increased blood pressure and incidence of hypertension, decreased kidney function, and reproductive problems.
According to the EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule, customers have to be notified and action must be taken when 10 percent of tap water samples test over 15 ppb. In Newark, two different water systems serve the city: the Pequannock in the west and the Wanaque in the east. Pequannock samples began showing elevated lead levels back in 2015, but when combined with the Wanaque samples, the city remained under the action level.
In March 2016, Newark Public Schools shut off 400 sources of drinking water at 30 schools after finding elevated lead levels. By October 2018, after a year of the city maintaining that its water was “absolutely safe to drink,” and getting sued by the Natural Resources Defense Council over alleged violations of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, the EPA informed Newark that the corrosion inhibitor it had been using in lead pipes at the Pequannock plant hadn’t been working. Lead levels had reached 47 ppb and been above the action level since early 2017. The city started distributing water filters to residents.
“You can’t just have a filter and assume that it’s going to last forever and work forever.”
But in August 2019, the EPA sent a letter to the NJ Department of Environmental Protection and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka saying that the filters had not worked adequately. Water samples from the first half of 2019 showed lead levels at 57 ppb.
By September, Essex County, which contains Newark, had created a $120 million bond program to help Newark replace its lead service lines, which connect homes to the water main, at no cost to residents. This was supplemented with federal funds procured with the help of New Jersey Senator and former Newark Mayor Cory Booker. The state Department of Environmental Protection (which is also being sued by the NRDC) committed $1 million to help the city with public education.
In October, seemingly through the worst of it, the city reduced its water distribution to cover only pregnant women and families with children under the age of 6, with filters still available to those with water testing above 15 ppb or living with lead pipes in an impacted area. Holloway, whose home is served by the Pequannock plant, had to try multiple city distribution locations before eventually getting a filter from her aunt. “Some places didn’t want to give it to us because they would tell us that our water was great, not knowing if it was good or not because they never came to test it,” she said.
As of mid-March, the city had replaced about 8,300 out of 18,000 lead service lines. Newark lead levels sat at 31 ppb for the second half of 2019, while numbers for the first half of 2020 fluctuate as samples are gradually collected.
That Newark still has high levels of lead in certain places does not shock Daniel J. Van Abs, associate professor of practice for water, society, and the environment at Rutgers University. Van Abs previously worked at the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and then at the Water Supply Authority. “There was never an expectation that the moment they started treatment that it would automatically drop the levels down below the action level,” he explained.
And yet, he has lingering concerns about public education in Newark because, as the city’s recent study illustrated, installation and maintenance are paramount. “You can’t just have a filter and assume that it’s going to last forever and work forever and do the right thing forever,” he said. “They need to be managed properly, and not everybody’s going to do that. So the notion of having a very strong public support system is critical.”
Years of changing lead levels and fluctuating guidance have left resignation as the overwhelming feeling for some residents; for others, like members of the Newark Water Coalition, outrage remains at the fore. Now their key sticking points with the city are over education and reaching every resident with essential instructions, like flushing water before using it and never running hot water through a filter, as well as answering questions about the lead service line replacement process.
“They’d rather keep on saying, ‘7,000, 8,000, 18,000, woo!’” argued Awakening, a poet and activist with the coalition, referring to the amount of service lines that have been replaced. “But have you gone around to all of those 7,000 homes and said, ‘In four months we’ll be back to retest your water?’ That’s the question. If you haven’t done that, your job is not complete.”
Sabre Bee, a Newark Water Coalition coalition co-founder and Newark resident, estimates that about 30 people come to the group’s meetings. They get donations to cover water costs from events and online crowdfunding.
“People are coming to us, and we’re giving out water to people that the city is turning away — still. We’re still giving information and education about what the timeline is of this problem, how it’s progressed, and what it means for people now,” said Bee. The coalition has also branched into advocacy, meeting with members of Booker’s staff, as well as with New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s staff, to discuss strengthening the Lead and Copper Rule.
Interactions with Baraka, who was widely supported by community organizers when he ran for mayor and is the son of renowned poet and activist Amiri Baraka, have been more strained. In October, activists were escorted out of Baraka’s “State of the Water” town hall after interrupting him. (The city’s press officers referred me to the Water and Sewer Utilities department for comment.)
The NRDC, whose lawsuit against Newark is ongoing, shares that tension with the city. Erik Olson, a senior strategic director at NRDC, doesn’t believe Newark’s response meets the current situation, despite noting positive steps. Among his main grievances are the limited water distribution and lack of transparency around how the city is using the money from the Department of Environmental Protection that was dedicated to education.
Booker, too, has not come out unscathed, despite his welcome help securing funds. The city has said the Pequannock plant was in “desperate need” of improvements and that they “inherited an ignored infrastructure” when Baraka replaced Booker in 2014. Under Booker’s tenure, the now-defunct nonprofit Newark Watershed Conservation and Development Corporation, which operated the plant, was repeatedly warned about neglect and antiquated technology at the Pequannock plant. (In a statement, Booker emphasized his work addressing lead contamination in drinking water and helping Newark gain access to federal funds.)
Newark officials often blame the media for any lingering sense of controversy that remains around the water issue. In January, the city published a glowing report about water infrastructure improvements, with the headline: “Here’s the Newark Water Story You Haven’t Heard: City Has Made $160 Million in Improvements to Improve Quality and Infrastructure.” When Mark Di Ionno, the public information officer who authored the story, emailed me a copy in February, the headline pasted into the message read, “Amid media lead hysteria, the story of massive water treatment and quality upgrades is lost.”
Tiffany Stewart, of Newark’s Water and Sewer Utilities department, maintains that the city’s education program has both breadth and depth — listing community meetings, tele-town halls, Facebook livestreams, door-knocking initiatives, and robocalls, in addition to mailing out literature, providing information on websites and social media, and offering filter installation assistance, either through demonstrations at meetings or going to residents’ homes. On average, Stewart thought community meetings attracted about 40 to 50 people; she did not have readily available information about the number of residents who’ve taken the city up on its installation offer.
“I don’t think at this point that there is a concern with respect to proper installation and maintenance. I think at this point, the city has been diligent in going and making sure that we’re educating people on the proper installation and maintenance,” she said. When asked if she was confident every household in the city has been reached, regardless of internet savvy and in spite of the November report’s findings about improperly installed filters, she gave a resounding yes.
On that Saturday morning in February, just about a mile and a half from where Newark Water Coalition activists were setting up at St. Lucy’s, a woman with two young daughters struggled down Williams Street, dragging two cases of bottled water. She had just exited the building for Newark’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, one of the locations where eligible residents can still pick up two cases of bottled water every two weeks. The woman told me she’d been avoiding tap water for about six months and that she buys additional bottles between stops at WIC. “This is not enough,” she said, nodding toward the cases on the sidewalk, her daughters already half a block ahead of her.
According to Stewart, two cases per household every two weeks is based on the city’s calculation of average household size and water consumption, but households with extenuating circumstances can request additional water. “We don’t turn anyone away, but what we have informed the public is that what we intend to give out is two cases,” she said. “We don’t have an unlimited amount of water supply, so we want to just make sure that we’re giving it to the people who actually need it.”
“They should have investigated this way before it had gotten to the point where it is now, which is really, really bad.”
But that mother’s confusion over city policy and which precautions were necessary was echoed at St. Lucy’s, where people said they spend their own money on additional water. Coalition members asked everyone if they’d had their water tested, stressing how simple it was.
Desmond Pittman, in grey sweats with earbuds hanging from the neck of his hoodie and a Styrofoam cup of coffee in hand, lives in a newer building. But still, his family uses a filter. “We have children in the house — two young boys,” he told me. He gladly took two cases of water bottles from the activists, aware that even though he lives in a building constructed after 1986, when Congress banned lead pipes, lead contamination can also occur through faucets and fixtures in a home. “I just pay attention, do my own observations and research, as well as pay attention to the mass information,” he said. “I kind of treat the water like the bad areas. So I still buy bottled water even if they say that we have the newer pipes. So we don’t run the lead risk, but I know there are other toxins.”
Van Abs, the Rutgers professor, thought precautions taken by people like Pittman were understandable, given the events of the last few years. “Once that trust is eroded, it takes a long time to bring it back,” he said.
“They should have investigated this way before it had gotten to the point where it is now, which is really, really bad,” said Holloway, outside St. Lucy’s Church with two gallons of water. “I think they could’ve handled it better by testing everyone and not sending them away just because they’re thinking, ‘Oh, well, your building’s not built in this year, so your pipes are well.’ I feel like whether your water’s tested or not, good or not, you shouldn’t turn them away for the water because they don’t know. Some people just don’t know.”