A Determined Group of Newark Residents Fights for Clean Drinking Water

November 14, 2019

On the streets of Newark, New Jersey, a fledgling group of community activists has come together to protect fellow residents from a lead-contaminated water crisis. The Newark Water Coalition (NWC) has been urging folks to have their water tested for lead contamination, and demanding that elected officials act quickly.

Lead contamination in Newark’s water supply is not a new development, but the issue is earning increased attention and pressure. In 2017, 10 percent of water samples tested in the city had lead levels at nearly twice the amount legally allowed under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. In June 2018, the Newark Education Workers Caucus and the Natural Resources Defense Council sued the city of Newark and state of New Jersey to force them to “address repeated, systemic failures to follow federal rules designed to protect the public from dangerous lead exposure.”

“We’re getting information from the ground directly from our fellow residents,” Sabre Bee, NWC co-founder and Newark resident, told Filter. “That’s the only way we have power, is to learn what people’s experiences are dealing with the city.” Newark Water Coalition describes itself as a “watchdog” to ensure the city fulfills its promises. The group is comprised of young residents from around Newark, many of whom first met in the city’s public high schools.

In fall 2018, Newark gave out over 40,000 water filters to residents, promising that the filters would remove 99 percent of the lead contaminants. But this August, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) informed the city and state that the filters may not be working adequately.

In response, the city and state promised to give out free water bottles. Newark has also begun a massive program to replace close to 18,000 lead service water lines in private homes, in some cases at no cost to homeowners.

But when residents suspected their government was neglecting to adequately protect them, they joined forces to investigate and act. NWC discovered that many residents had not been told anything about their water by the city. And few people knew how they could get their water tested.

In October, the city stopped its widespread water bottle distribution, claiming that the EPA’s warnings about the filters have proved untrue. But many residents who still need water say they are being turned away by city officials for being “ineligible.” In this climate, NWC stepped up to fill in the gaps in residents’ knowledge. But the group has gone further than that.

In October, NWC made news—and noise—when the group attended a public panel hosted at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) in downtown Newark, featuring Mayor Ras Baraka. There followed a confrontation, in which NWC activists were ejected from the building by police. While police and city officials claim the group was being disruptive and “trying hard to incite [the] officers,” Bee said that her fellow activists were acting peacefully.

NWC believes that the panel served less to educate the public and more as a “pep rally” for Mayor Baraka. “It was Baraka defending himself,” Bee said. “An outraged parent in the audience asked a direct question: ‘If you’re saying the water filters are working, can you tell us the levels of the contaminants in the water now, and if it’s safe to drink?’ And he danced around the question.”

“I had my water tested by the city and by Rutgers, and the results were different.”

Right now, NWC is spreading word urging residents to check their water in more than one way. Aside from the city’s testing services, the local campus at Rutgers University is also testing water.

“I had my water tested by the city and by Rutgers,” Bee said. “And the results were different. Now there’s many reasons why that could be, but I have my own reservations about it. Now a lot of people have been waiting for weeks to have their water tested, and we’re urging them in the meantime to have both their children and homes tested for lead.”

NWC has been distributing clean water and water filters to residents every Saturday, and using the opportunity to educate them further about the health risks of lead and where to have testing done.

But thinking of the future, NWC is also lobbying city and state lawmakers to secure funding for Individualized Education Programs (IEP) in public schools and special needs education assistance. “Lead poisoning has irreversible effects on children’s brain development,” Bee said. “We know in the next few years we will need teachers who are specialized to work with students victimized by this poisoning.”

The longer-term prevention of future harms will come when the city government can fully replace all old lead service water lines in homes. NWC is encouraging residents to sign up for replacement services provided by the city, and monitoring the city’s follow-up.

“We will wait and see what the results are,” Bee said. “I haven’t received any updates about my application or when they’re going to start the replacement. The feedback and information we will get from homeowners is our only lever of power here. Then we can go the City Council and show them if we have a list of homeowners who signed up but didn’t get a response.”

The lead crisis in Newark involves more than just water. At the NJPAC hearing in October, Shereef Elnahal, the president and CEO of University Hospital, highlighted hazardous effects from lead-based paint in homes. Bee said NWC is raising awareness of this issue through biweekly meetings, newsletters and social media updates.

“It’s important people don’t feel a false sense of security just from a promise their pipes will be replaced,” she said. “We are watching for when the lead levels in the water are at zero. And we don’t want them to lose sight also of the lead in their soil, dust, and paint because their homes are so old. We have to hold our landlords and government accountable to keep people safe.”

Image: Members of Newark Water Coalition educating local residents about the lead water crisis. Used with permission courtesy of Newark Water Coalition via Facebook.

Alexander Lekhtman

Alexander is Filter's staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it's actually alright. He's also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter's editorial fellow.

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