Newark lead water contamination crisis forces city to hand out bottled water to residents

Clark Mindock

For a week now, residents in some neighbourhoods of one of New Jersey’s biggest cities have been lining up for free bottled water, as a lead contamination crisis has gripped the city and led to calls for swift action by state and federal officials.

The crisis measures have been adopted in response to a report out earlier this month by the Environmental Protection Agency, which found dangerously high lead levels in parts of the city’s water supply — and has led once again to concerns about what long term health impacts might stem from lax regulatory measures in a predominantly African American city.

But some residents are saying that the free water they are getting, often after waiting for hours in line, is not enough.

“Two free cases to do everything — to drink, to cook. It won’t last me that long but it’s not cheap for me to keep buying water myself,” Donnette Goodluck, 52, told the New York Times.

The decision by the city to start handing out water amounts to the most prominent recognition that there is a problem with Newark’s drinking water, and comes after residents had repeatedly complained about the quality of their water. The issue is thought to be caused by century-old pipes, and by a failure to use adequate anti-corrosion measures, and tallies with EPA data showing that poor and minority cities often suffer greater environmental damages.

Experts see striking differences between the situation in Newark and the one seen at the height of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, where the lead contamination crisis led to national headlines, and which continues to this day.

“In Flint, we can pinpoint when the crisis began. But in Newark, it’s gone under the radar for a while. There’s been quite a bit of denial,” Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician who helped bring the crisis in Flint to light in 2015, told the Washington Post.

“The mayor keeps saying that this isn’t like Flint,” Shakima Thomas, a resident of Newark, told the climate and environment blog Grist in November. “It is the same as Flint in the way that they tried to cover it up. We were victimized by this administration. They gamble with our health. They put politics first before justice.”

The crisis in Newark comes as the Trump administration has repeatedly claimed that water quality is a top environmental concern for the country, even as troubling signs continue to pile up.

The EPA has said that it is considering taking action if local officials in Newark do not do so on their own, with a spokesperson saying the agency “is prepared to take appropriate action”.

But the city has also had a lengthy history with lead contamination problems. In 2009, it estimated that lead poisoning in children occurred at three times the rate there than in the rest of New Jersey. And, in 2016, the city was forced to shut down drinking fountains in 30 schools, after elevated lead levels were detected.