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Amid Newark’s water crisis, questions about why it’s taking so long to resolve

In Newark, New Jersey, worries and anger over contaminated drinking water are growing by the day. High lead levels have been found at many of Newark’s homes, in a case echoing the 2014 water crisis in Flint, Michigan. City officials have distributed water filters, but now the EPA says they may not be enough. NJTV’s Brenda Flanagan reports, and Lisa Desjardins talks to NJTV reporter Michael Hill.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Worries and anger over contaminated drinking water are growing by the day in Newark, New Jersey. In a case that echoes the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, high lead levels have been found in many Newark homes. City officials have distributed water filters since then. But the EPA now says those filters may not be effective enough.

    That warning came after a handful of water samples showed lead levels are well above the EPA's standard of 15 parts per billion. The EPA says bottled water should be distributed to all affected residents. The matter is now being fought in court, which Lisa Desjardins will discuss in a moment.

    But first, our colleagues at NJTV have covered the reaction in Newark. Here's Brenda Flanagan.

  • Brenda Flanagan:

    Ebony Williams says she installed a PUR filter cartridge from the city of Newark on her kitchen faucet just a couple weeks ago. It's already blinking red, and she wasn't able to get free bottled water handed out by the city. The mom of two is deeply concerned about lead in her water after tests showed these filters failed in two other houses. Officials are now planning a much broader survey of homes with filtered water.

    Have you had the kids tested for lead?

  • Ebony Williams:

    I'm taking them today actually to Williams Street, instead of getting in line for the water, I'm going to get in line for the lead test.

  • Peter Chen:

    If a parent is concerned their child's been lead-exposed, they should get their child tested. It's the only way to know for sure, if there's been exposure. The long term consequences for kids both developmentally and neurologically are really staggering and irreversible.

  • Brenda Flanagan:

    Newark started distributing filters last November, after officials learned lead from corroded service pipes was leaching into water supplied by the Pequannock system. The city's handed out more than 38,000 PUR filters but never tested whether they were working properly until this July and August because they're nationally-certified and endorsed by the EPA.

    Residents are confused.

  • Rose Crenshaw:

    At this point, it feels like it's a band-aid they're using to, I guess, lull everyone to think that everything is OK. But it isn't enough. If the pipes need to be replaced, let's do that.

    We're paying for water. I'm a homeowner. So, we're paying for water we cannot use.

  • Brenda Flanagan:

    Pequannock's water system connects to 14,730 lead service lines in Newark. Administration sources say there's no evidence of systemic failure; perhaps it was a bad batch of filters. But they won't know until they conduct further tests, and they're now developing a survey protocol.

    The EPA ordered bottled water to be distributed in the meantime, but the first delivery from New Jersey's emergency management stores apparently displayed an expired best by date. That held up distribution for a few hours even though the FDA has stated there's no limit to bottled water's shelf life.

  • Latoya Bailey:

    I came at 10:00, they told me, after 11:00. Now I'm back after 11:00, they told me, after 1:00. So it's like all of this run-around.

  • Brenda Flanagan:

    City officials are urging residents to run their water. That helps distribute the new anti-corrosion chemical, which should be working by year's end.

    Williams worries about her younger son's lead levels.

  • Ebony Williams:

    It's very hard for him to concentrate on certain things and the symptoms I've been reading up on lately– he's following that trend.

  • Brenda Flanagan:

    For NJTV News and the "PBS NewsHour", I'm Brenda Flanagan.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    This all led to the start of a federal court hearing today. The Natural Resources Defense Council brought the lawsuit, accusing the city of Newark and the state of New Jersey of violating safe drinking water laws. The NRDC says bottled water must be distributed for all the city's 285,000 residents.

    Another member of the NJTV team on this story, Michael Hill, was in the courtroom and joins me now.

    Michael, Newark has acted essentially because they were sued. Take us to the courtroom you were in today. I heard the judge had some very strong words?

  • Michael Hill:

    She really did. And this really boiled down today to corrosion control at the treatment facility. The experts for the environmentalists say it's not working well and it had been leading to very high parts per billion to lead being found in several homes. Three of them, in fact, 18 parts per billion in one home, 56 parts per billion in one home, and get this one, 246 parts per billion at a home this year in Newark. That's 16 times higher than the EPA actionable level.

    Now, the expert more for the city says, wait a minute here, those levels are high because corrosion control had been an issue. But those issues now are being resolved. So, we're seeing lead levels come down in Newark because of better and more stable treatment of water there.

    So what's the recommendation for homeowners caught up in the middle of this? The experts for the city says, well, just flush your water 15 to 30 seconds at the tap, and the experts for the environment said that's woefully too low. He suggests five minutes, and he says that really depends on the forceful flow of the water. If it's a slow force, five minutes may not be enough. If it's fast force, two minutes may do the job.

    Now, the judge did have some very pointed questions. As a matter of fact, some points today, she took over questioning from both of the attorneys, because she wanted answers about the effectiveness of the corrosion control and then some simple things, Lisa, such as is the water safe for bathing? Is it safe for washing clothes? Is it safe for washing dishes? Is it safe for food preparation and so forth?

    And the expert for the environmentalists to those questions, yes, Lisa, it certainly is.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Michael, let me get a couple more questions to you on this. We've seen this story continue to pop up in city after city across the country. We know tens of thousands of people right there at least will be affected. When you talk about something else I saw in your stories, what appears to be an opening rift, rich versus poor, and colors — communities of color over this issue?

  • Michael Hill:

    For some people, it certainly is. I had a conversation with the New Jersey Sierra Club director this week talking about this issue. And we've asked some lawmakers, as well. If this were something taking place perhaps in Montclair, in Westfield, in Short Hill, some of the suburbs surrounding Newark, would those suburbs still be dealing with this kind of issue, we're talking about two, three decades down the road.

    A lot of the answers that come up are absolutely not. In fact, the Sierra Club says the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection is responsible for making sure that the water is clean, that it's of good quality in New Jersey, and it really should be on the forefront of trying to get money to resolve this issue in Newark, which is so widespread. The DEP (AUDIO GAP) New Jersey was actually in Washington, D.C., meeting with the head of the EPA today — Lisa.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    And, Michael, one question briefly, how long do you think citizens will have deal with unsafe water? Is it clear?

  • Michael Hill:

    It is not clear. These corrosion control issues have to be resolved, and then there is a plan under way right now in Newark. It is kind of piecemeal some describe it, an eight-year plan, $75 million, to replace some of these lines that are going from the street into individual homes, the homeowners, of course, own those lines, and it's a matter of funding.

    But it is — there is a program under way, but some people say that needs to be expedited, and, in fact, what Newark needs for this issue is a Marshall Plan — Lisa.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Michael Hill with the great NJTV on this important story — thank you, Michael.

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