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Water Crisis in Newark: Community Demands Action as Lead Contamination Reaches All-Time High

Web ExclusiveSeptember 12, 2019
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The city of Newark is facing a growing crisis as thousands of residents remain without safe tap water due to a lead contamination. Newark high school teacher Yvette Jordan and Natural Resources Defense Council official Erik Olson join us for Part 2 of a discussion about the city’s response to the crisis and the community’s ongoing fight for environmental justice. The NRDC filed a lawsuit against Newark over the summer, accusing the city of violating federal safe drinking water laws.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We bring you now the second part of our segment on 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.

This is Newark Mayor Ras Baraka at a news conference last month.

MAYOR RAS BARAKA: We went to three homes. With the help of the EPA, we tested four water filters in three homes. Two of those water filters came back where the lead was not reduced to a level that we were comfortable with. One of the houses did in fact have that. As a precautionary measure, we all got together with the EPA. The EPA made its suggestions. We talked through that. We wanted to be able to put a system together — we were able to do it on Monday — to distribute water until we figure out what’s happening. We absolutely do not have enough information one way or another to determine whether the filters are working or not.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Mayor Baraka told MSNBC Monday that he would be ready to tell residents whether or not the filters are now working in a matter of days.

AMY GOODMAN: New Jersey officials have signed off on a $120 million bond with Essex County to fast-track the replacement of thousands of contaminated pipes in the city in the next 24 to 30 months. Despite this, New Jersey’s political leaders, including Newark Mayor Baraka and New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, are facing mounting criticisms for their handling of the water crisis. In August, Governor Murphy called for federal help.

GOV. PHIL MURPHY: Is it going to get better? It will not get better in the absence of action. And that is where, in particular, we need federal help. And not just New Jersey, this is a national matter.

AMY GOODMAN: 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. Newark is the largest city in New Jersey with nearly 300,000 residents, its water crisis primarily affecting the poor and the black community. In 2017, more than 13% of New Jersey children with elevated lead levels were in Newark, despite the fact just 3.8% of the state’s children live there.

We continue our conversation with Yvette Jordan, a teacher at Newark’s Central High School, resident of Newark’s South Ward. She started a group called Newark Education Workers, or NEW, Caucus in 2012 with other educators to teach students about social justice. And in Chicago, we’re joined by Erik Olson, 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.

Thank you both for staying with us. Erik Olson, you have filed the suit, of which Yvette Jordan is a part. Put this in the national context, how you think this arose, what kind of warnings. How was the Natural Resources Defense Council involved early on? How did you think Newark and the state of New Jersey responded? Do you think there’s a cover-up here? And how far back do you think it goes?

ERIK OLSON: Well, the problem in Newark and the problem in Flint are not unique. I mean, they certainly are extreme cases of very severe lead contamination. And thankfully, most cities across the country do not have that level of extreme contamination. But I’m here to tell you that there are a lot of other cities — here in Chicago, many other cities — that have a lot of these old lead pipes, many of them 100 years old or more, that can be leaking lead into our tap water. So, luckily, in most cities, it’s not as severe as Newark or as severe as Flint. But we have a national problem here, and we really need a national solution, which would include some federal funding and some real commitment across the country to fixing the problem.

Unfortunately, in Newark, the city and the state were pretty slow to recognize and admit that there was a severe problem with lead contamination. We had written to them as long ago as September 2017 to say, “What’s going on?” We wrote to the mayor. We wrote to the city water system. And they basically brushed us off. So it took litigation to ultimately force real attention to this issue. And we are now finally getting to the point where they’re talking about quicker replacement of the lead pipes and providing some bottled water to some people — not everybody that needs it — in the city. And there’s some action that’s being taken on treatment of the water to make it better, but that’s going to take many months before all of that truly kicks in. So —

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain why the city put on their website the water is absolutely safe to drink? And when did they put it up? And when did they take it down?

ERIK OLSON: Well, they’ve repeatedly said, in 2017 and through much of 2018, that the water was perfectly safe. They said repeatedly things like “Newark has some of the safest water in the state, if not in the country.” They denied that there was any widespread problem with lead contamination, and basically said it’s limited to a few houses that are older that have these lead pipes.

And, in fact, Newark is now saying there’s something like 18,000 households across the city that have these lead pipes that go from the water main out in the street to people’s houses. And frankly, because the water is corrosive, and has been for some time, even some of the lead in people’s home plumbing can also have been released.

So, we need to fix the treatment. We need to make sure people have bottled water or filters that actually work. And we need to pull out all those old lead pipes with some kind of federal oversight. A court oversight is what we’re asking for.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I want to turn to Shakima Thomas, a Newark resident whose 5-year-old son Bryce has tested positive for lead. Thomas spoke to CNN in August.

SHAKIMA THOMAS: When Bryce accidentally drinks water, I’m like, “Oh my gosh,” like I just hope this lead isn’t going to affect his future. … If I don’t advocate for him, the city isn’t going to advocate for him. And I don’t trust that they’re doing everything that they can, and I don’t trust that they ever will.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, that’s Shakima Thomas, a Newark resident whose 5-year-old son has tested positive for lead contamination. Could you talk about the households? I mean, there are over 10,000 that have been affected. Who are the people who are most affected by this? What residents in Newark?

YVETTE JORDAN: Well, the residents who are pregnant and children under 6 are really the most vulnerable, and our elderly, as well. But everybody is really affected, since there is no safe level of lead. So, our concern really is informing people and getting the word out.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Are there particular neighborhoods that have been affected more than others?

YVETTE JORDAN: Well, those — yes, South Ward of Newark, the West Ward of Newark, Central, some in the North Ward, all the way through. However, the Wanaque section, which is in the East Ward of Newark, also is affected. And unfortunately, they are not receiving — well, let me back up. They weren’t receiving filters, and therefore, not water. However, some of them are, if they ask for it.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about the whole story of the filters? Now, you live in the South Ward. And how would you describe these areas that are most affected? We were saying in the introduction here, we’re talking about the poorest areas of Newark and the largely African-American populations. Of course, Newark is largely an African-American city.

YVETTE JORDAN: OK. Well, first of all, Newark is an urban setting; however, all of Newark is not typically poor. And some areas are very nice, and they have high levels of lead. I mean, I know in the North Ward some. Some people have high levels in the West Ward, really beautiful homes and middle-class, upper-middle-class families, who have seven — 76.2. I know Shakima, she had about 76, and then she was retested, and it was higher. I have a high level of lead, as well.

So, these areas, while the assumption is really, really poverty-stricken, and some of them are, all of them aren’t. So, that’s a misnomer. So, unfortunately, Newark is heavily black and brown, and we are affected. So, for example, in my classroom, I teach about environmental justice, and I say, “In black and brown communities, we see this so often; however, it’s not always in poor areas.”

AMY GOODMAN: And so, talk about what’s happened. What have you been offered? I mean, first you were told —


AMY GOODMAN: — reassured repeatedly that the water was safe. But then you had the filters. Then you had the expired bottled water. And are the people who need it getting it? Is this adequate?

YVETTE JORDAN: Yeah. Certain people are getting it. For example, if you go and say, “I want some water,” initially, it was, “Let me check and see if your name has a lead service line in your home.” And if so, you would receive two flats of water, which is like 48 bottles. So, now they’re handing out —

AMY GOODMAN: This is to drink, cook, bathe, do everything with.

YVETTE JORDAN: Yeah, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re not supposed to let the tap water touch you. Is that right?

YVETTE JORDAN: Right. So, now it’s 40 — it’s four flats for two weeks. So, that’s — it’s really comical, if you think about it.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s 24 bottles for a whole week. And how many people in a family get these 24 bottles?


AMY GOODMAN: What per person?

YVETTE JORDAN: No, for the family. For the family, you receive this. So, now I think everybody is realizing, “OK, I need water. I ought to get it.” However, if you’re homebound, if you’re elderly, you’ve got to make arrangements and have it actually sent to you. And some organizations are volunteering and stepping up and doing that, and that’s great. It’s just the area of concern is an organized effort. And the logistics of this really is a nightmare. So, unless you have experience in doing it, it can really fall apart. And originally, I think it was falling apart, some of which is coming together slowly. However, it’s not enough.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Erik Olson, could you explain if there’s anything that parents can do to protect children from this lead?

ERIK OLSON: Well, right now we’re not sure whether these filters are working. So, really, the best option is to use bottled water for any drinking or for any cooking. It’s OK to use the tap water for bathing or for showering, as far as we know. But any cooking, any consumption of that water, especially bottle-fed infants, we’re very worried about infant formula made with tap water that may contain lead. The kids can really
be deeply affected. So the best thing to do is right now use bottled water. We’ll see if the filters are checked out and really work. We don’t know yet what the situation is with those.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s turn to Newark Mayor Ras Baraka speaking on MSNBC Monday.

MAYOR RAS BARAKA: I’m from Newark, and we have taken this thing on, head-on. I lived there. My mother lives there. My brothers live there, my cousins, my aunts, my nephew, my wife who’s pregnant. We all have lead service lines. We all use filters. I use a pitcher filter in my house that I got from the Water Department when they were passing them out, going door to door, and as people went to the places to pick up these filters. So, we gave out 39,000 filters at the very beginning.

We changed over 800 lead service lines. We bonded $75 million ourself and got the state to subsidize that bond, so residents only had to pay 10%. But with this new money that we just raised — no other city in America has raised $120 million to replace every single lead service line, not just in Newark, but also in Belleville, in Hillside. We’re going to change their lead service lines, as well. And we’re going to do it in about 24 months, 24 to 30 months, given weather and other eventualities.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Newark Mayor Ras Baraka speaking on MSNBC. Erik Olson, describe what happens to a child who ingests lead. Talk about the developmental effects and also how it affects adults, including pregnant women. How does it biologically work?

ERIK OLSON: Well, unfortunately, lead is a very serious poison even at very low doses. It used to be thought that at lowish doses, lead wasn’t so much of a problem. But all the emerging science shows that especially young children, even in the womb, a child that’s developing, as the brain develops, lead interferes with brain development, and it can have effects ranging from decreasing the child’s IQ, and that can last for a lifetime. It can also interfere with behavior. So it can cause more problems with impulse control. It can cause problems with learning, with ADD-type symptoms. So, all of those can interfere with a child’s ability to learn in school. Kids can act out. There’s evidence even of long-term, irreversible impacts of lead contamination that a kid is exposed to in a young age.

And even adults now. We do know that there’s some impacts on adults. One of the effects that we know of is that it can elevate blood pressure, and therefore can be linked to cardiovascular disease. So, some recent scientific papers have come out documenting this problem with adults, as well. So, although it’s most severe in young children, we are very worried about some of these impacts on adults, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about the chemical they’re releasing into the water in Newark, that is used to line the pipes so that the lead doesn’t leach out?

ERIK OLSON: Yes. So, the way that a water system that is competently operated should be working and should have been working is to treat the water with a chemical called a corrosion inhibitor. Basically, the way that works — the one that Newark just switched to is called orthophosphate. And basically, the way it works is it coats the inside of the pipes over time. It takes six months to 12 months for this to happen, but gradually it coats the inside of the pipes with a thin layer of protection that can reduce the amount of lead that seeps out of the lead pipes or flakes off those lead pipes and gets into tap water. It’s not a foolproof thing. It can significantly reduce lead exposure over time. But to really fix the problem, you have to pull out these lead service lines, the lead pipes, between the water main and people’s houses. And there are something like 18,000 of those lead pipes in Newark that are going to need to be pulled out.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I’d like to turn to 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful Cory Booker, who was the mayor of Newark from 2006 to 2013. He spoke to PBS’s Christiane Amanpour about his record.

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: Should voters be worried about the way you handled this vital clean water situation in your city?

SEN. CORY BOOKER: Yeah, I’m proud that we had incredible clean water when I was mayor of the city of Newark and ran the system right. What I’m frustrated about is that people are trying to make this a particularistic problem when it is a national crisis. Newark is not the only city in the midst of a lead crisis. In fact, we now have a nation that — where there are 3,000 jurisdictions — 3,000 — where children have more than twice the blood lead levels of Flint, Michigan. And so, as much as people might want to try to point fingers at my current mayor or whatever, when are we all going to step back in saying we have a massive clean water — this is not a developing nation.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, that’s Senator Cory Booker, formerly the mayor of Newark. Yvette, your response to what he said?

YVETTE JORDAN: Well, I think he is right about saying our mayor now, it is not all laid at his feet. We are aware of that and have said that numerous times. However, it is laid it at his predecessors’ feet, as well. So that includes our former mayors.

And even saying that it is a national problem, of course it is. However, when he was mayor, how come he was not on top of it? Why wasn’t he actually doing anything and finding out about lead in our water? So, that’s an area of concern several activists, including myself, have worried about and have spoken about. And I’ve been really quiet about saying anything about our youngest senator; however, he’s got to accept some responsibility for this also.

AMY GOODMAN: And what can he do as a senator? I mean, he represents New Jersey.

YVETTE JORDAN: Well, as Erik mentioned, we need national money. So, he’s on a national stage, so he should be advocating nationally for funding.

AMY GOODMAN: And you mentioned Ras Baraka, well-known, longtime progressive activist.


AMY GOODMAN: He was the principal of your high school —


AMY GOODMAN: — before you were there, Central High School, certainly deeply involved with children.


AMY GOODMAN: As you said, his wife is pregnant now also,
comes from a very progressive family, his father, the great poet and writer Amiri Baraka.


AMY GOODMAN: What about his role and your assessment of his work right now in this area?

YVETTE JORDAN: Well, first, I think it’s extremely important understanding who he is in our community. And he, first and foremost, is an activist. He was born and raised in Newark. He came back as a teacher, as an administrator, and was so revered in terms of what he was doing in terms of young people, in terms of those who are really in need.

So, when he was approached with this, and he said, “No, everything is fine,” really, it was almost a smack in the face of so many of us who supported him. So, my husband and I even had him in our yard when he was campaigning, and invited others over so he would come and share his ideas. So, he’s somebody I supported, and in many ways I still support; however, he really defied our public trust. And that hurt.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Erik, I’d just like to turn to some breaking news. The New York Times just reported that the Trump administration today is expected to complete the legal repeal of a major Obama-era clean water regulation, which had placed limits on polluting chemicals that could be used near streams, wetlands and water bodies. The repeal of the Waters of the United States rule will be announced at the headquarters of the National Association of Manufacturers. Erik Olson, the significance of this and what this means for water safety?

ERIK OLSON: Well, this is the clean water rule that the Trump administration has been trying to repeal since, really, the president was inaugurated, and what they’re trying to do at the behest of his hosts at the National Association of Manufacturers. These are the big industries that cause a lot of water pollution. What they’re trying to do is repeal protections for really enormous amounts of streams and waterways across the country. The way the rule was supposed to work is to protect the drinking water of over 100 million Americans by ensuring that there isn’t industrial dumping of water pollution into those waterways. And what they’re going to be moving forward with is just a repeal of the basic Clean Water Act protections for over 100 million people’s drinking water. And we’re very deeply concerned about that.

AMY GOODMAN: As we finally wrap up, Yvette Jordan, after you leave here today, you’re going back to school, to Central High School in Newark. What is the response of the schools right now? What are they doing? How are they protecting the kids? And what are you telling people as a teacher? What are you telling the children? Are they aware of this crisis?

YVETTE JORDAN: My students are aware, and they call me the fix-it lady. I said, “What are you talking about?” Because I always say, “Fix it. Fix it.” So, what I’m telling my students is, you should really drink the bottled water. And in schools, our superintendent has informed all of us our water is safe in our schools and that certain schools have tested and are safe. However, I’m not sure about all of the data for all of the schools. So, certain people are asking about that. So we’re waiting for that.

AMY GOODMAN: And is there an uproar among the parents?

YVETTE JORDAN: Not as much as there should be.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’ll leave it at that for now, but of course we’ll continue to follow this issue. I want to thank you, Yvette Jordan, Newark Education Workers Caucus, the NEW Caucus, and Erik Olson of the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has filed the lawsuit against Newark in the summer, accusing it of violating federal safe drinking water laws.

To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

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