The Decisions and Inaction Behind Newark’s Lead Water Crisis

By Ayana Byrd Aug 26, 2019

When news broke nationally earlier this month that Newark is facing a lead water crisis, it was a shock to many outside of the New Jersey city. But a new investigation by The New York Times shows that it’s a problem years in the making.

The Times interviewed dozens of people and reviewed public records dating back 20 years and reportedly discovered “blunders at all levels of government in safeguarding Newark’s water infrastructure. City officials brushed aside warnings and allowed the system to deteriorate, while state and federal regulators often did not intervene forcefully enough to help prevent the crisis.”

In an article published Saturday (August 24), the paper cites various causes behind the lead crisis. One is the city’s infrastructure. Although Newark’s 282,000 residents makes it New Jersey’s largest city, the majority-Black municipality is also one of the poorest in the nation. Consequently, when officials discovered two decades ago that lead was leaching into tap water from 15,000 service lines, they lacked the funding to replace them.

“So, the city turned to an approved chemical, sodium silicate, that prevents corrosion and the leaching of lead from pipes into water,” reports The Times, adding that the chemical worked until 2017, when tests of tap water samples lead to the city receiving its first “non-compliance letter” from the State of New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) saying there were elevated levels of lead.

“We didn’t know if there was a widespread problem, or if there’s a specific problem in people’s homes,” Mayor Ras Baraka said in an interview soon after the release of the NJDEP letter. “That’s why the protocols are in place. So you can continue to do the testing.”

One year later, another round of tests also showed elevated lead levels. Soon after, Newark sent a brochure to residents. In it, Baraka wrote, “Many of you have heard or read the outrageously false statements about our water, but please know that the quality of our water meets all federal and state standards.”

That same year, the city received its third letter from the NJDEP saying that its water was not in compliance with federal safety standards.

While Baraka is the elected official currently in office, The Times looked to the administration of his predecessor, former mayor Cory Booker, who is currently campaigning to become the Democratic nominee for the 2020 presidential election:


Mr. Booker is promoting his environmental achievements as a pillar of his presidential bid, but his tenure as Newark’s mayor ended with a scandal that the current water crisis has dragged back into [the] public eye.


The Newark Watershed Conservation and Development Corporation was a public-private agency he revamped and stocked with leadership to handle water operations. But several of the agency’s leaders skimmed money and obtained kickbacks, leaving it poorly managed, according to court records and interviews.

A spokesperson for Booker’s campaign told The Times, “There is just no connection between the people who defrauded Newark residents at the Newark Watershed a decade ago and the very real water crisis impacting Newark residents today—other than they both share one word in common—‘water.’”

In October, the city and state began distributing water filters recommended by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to residents in areas whose water tested highest for lead.  But this month, tests revealed that two of the three types of filters in use did not remove lead. In response, the EPA sent a letter on August 9 that the city and state would face penalties if they did not distribute bottled water to these residents.

Reports The Times:


Governor Philip D. Murphy and Mayor Baraka then agreed to distribute bottled water, even as their aides began questioning why the EPA had recommended filters that were now in doubt.


“We’ve gone above and beyond by providing the filters,” said Catherine McCabe, the commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Protection. “We’re going above and beyond again in figuring out what’s wrong with the filters, although that is really something that EPA should be full time focused on.”

“There clearly has been a systemic failure,” Erik Olson, a senior director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told the newspaper. “Residents of Newark are the ones harmed by the top-to-bottom failures of government.”