Thousands of residents in Newark, New Jersey, remain unable to drink their tap water in an enduring public health nightmare. Lead contamination has plagued the city for years, but lead levels have spiked even higher in 2019. The crisis recently came to a head following revelations that water filters distributed to residents may not have been effective. New Jersey’s political leaders are facing mounting criticism for their handling of the water crisis. Advocates say the city downplayed the severity of the problem for years and has been slow on solutions, comparing Newark’s water crisis to Flint, Michigan. We speak with Yvette Jordan, teacher at Newark’s Central High School and a resident of Newark’s South Ward, and Erik Olson, a top official at the Natural Resources Defense Council, which filed a lawsuit against Newark over the summer, accusing the city of violating federal safe drinking water laws.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: We end today’s show with the water crisis in Newark, New Jersey, where thousands of residents remain unable to drink their tap water in an enduring public health nightmare. Lead contamination has plagued the city for years, but lead levels have spiked even higher in 2019. The crisis recently came to a head following revelations that water filters distributed to residents may not have been effective. The news came in August, when the Environmental Protection Agency ordered Newark officials to distribute bottled water to 15,000 residents, saying water filters were not fully shielding thousands of homes from lead exposure. Newark residents waited in line for hours to receive their water. The city then stopped handing out the bottles after discovering many of them had exceeded their best-by date.
AMY GOODMAN: Newark is the largest city in New Jersey with nearly 300,000 residents. Its water crisis primarily affects its poor and black community. In 2017, more than 13% of New Jersey children with elevated lead levels were in Newark, despite just 3.8% of the state’s children living there.
Well, for more, we’re joined here in New York by Yvette Jordan, a teacher at Newark’s Central High and resident of Newark’s South Ward. And in Chicago, Illinois, we’re joined by Erik Olson, a top official at the Natural Resources Defense Council, which filed a lawsuit against Newark over the summer, accusing it of violating federal safe drinking water laws.
We want to thank you both for being with us. Erik, let’s begin with you. Lay out the issue in Newark right now.
ERIK OLSON: Well, basically, what we have is a public health crisis in Newark. Unfortunately, the lead levels in the drinking water in Newark are some of the highest in the country that have been recorded in recent years for any city. So, basically, what’s happening is bottled water is being distributed to some citizens in Newark, because the filters didn’t look like they were working. There’s more tests going on to figure out why that’s the case. But we’ve got a lot of people across the city, especially children, who are really put at risk. The best estimates from 2017 are that at least 700 kids in Newark have elevated blood lead levels. We don’t know how much of that is from the drinking water. But the bottom line is that we’ve got real health risks in Newark, and we need to fix the problem, and the city has been pretty slow to getting around to taking action on it.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, what is astounding about all of this is Flint. In a word, Flint. This country has been going through this for years, the Flint water poisoned. Yvette Jordan, you’re a teacher at Central High. In fact, the principal, who used to be the principal, of Central High is now the mayor, Ras Baraka. Can you explain when you first learned that the water is lead-contaminated and what you feel now needs to happen, what you were told, how the story has changed?
YVETTE JORDAN: Well, initially, in February of 2018, NRDC approached an organization I’m a part of, and that is NEW Caucus, which is Newark Education Workers Caucus. We are the plaintiff, along with NRDC, in the federal lawsuit. And they approached us and said, “I don’t know if you’re aware there is lead in the water in Newark. And actually, your numbers are rivaling Flint.” So, when we heard this, we were taken aback and extremely flabbergasted. So we said, “We had no idea.” And they said, “We’re looking for a plaintiff, and would you serve as this?” So, as educators, we said, “Absolutely.”
We were concerned about our students, of course, and residents of the city of Newark, in general. And then, I am a homeowner, so I was really concerned. Eventually, I had my home tested. I’m at 44.2 parts, which is almost three times the federal action level.
So, once we said we’re filing, the mayor said, “Everything is fine, and there is no problem.” So, we were concerned about that, even though data showed there is one. And after the lawsuit was filed in June of 2018, he was still pushing back and saying it’s not a problem. Finally, he acquiesced in October of ’18 and said, “OK, we will hand out filters; however, not filters for everybody.” So that was a concern also.
And as Erik alluded to, we are really concerned about pregnant women and children under 6. So we’re still concerned about that. So, when the filters, in only two filters, seemingly failed, and the mayor said, “OK, we are going to now hand out bottled water,” only because there was an onslaught of attention and everybody saying, “What is going on?” Some people are getting the water now. And there’s a lot of misinformation, and how it is managed is really still an area of concern. It’s an area of concern for myself as an individual, as from NEW Caucus. Newark Water Coalition is extremely involved, and I saw footage earlier from their protest.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And can you talk about, specifically — you said pregnant women and children under 6 — what are the effects of lead?
AMY GOODMAN: And what is the city doing about them in particular?
YVETTE JORDAN: Well, I think Erik, he’s the expert there, and he can address that.
AMY GOODMAN: Erik?
ERIK OLSON: Sure.
YVETTE JORDAN: I know as an educator — excuse me. I know as an educator, though, I’m concerned about cognitive issues in my classroom. And I see that every day.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Erik Olson, we just have 30 seconds, but what you’re demanding of the city?
ERIK OLSON: We’re asking for immediate action to make sure that every citizen in Newark has safe drinking water, bottled water for people at risk, and filters, if those work out. Secondly, they have to treat the water so it doesn’t corrode the lead pipes and cause contamination. And finally, they need to pull out all those lead pipes, and we’d like to see some federal court oversight of that whole process, so it doesn’t fall off the radar once the press attention has reduced. We’re very concerned about that.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to do Part 2 of this discussion, put it online at democracynow.org. And we also hope to have Mayor Ras Baraka on the show next week, the mayor of Newark. Erik Olson, I want to thank you for being with us, top official at Natural Resources Defense Council. Please stay with us. And Yvette Jordan, Newark high school teacher, resident of Newark’s South Ward. That does it for the show. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.