Her husband, Frank Jordan, was cooking pork chops this summer when he turned on the faucet, forgetting that elevated lead levels in the city’s water meant residents had to cook with bottled water. Yvette saw the running faucet and intercepted her husband before the water touched their dinner.
When a pediatrician from Flint, Mich., visited her home to discuss Newark’s parallel water crisis, Yvette Jordan remembers the doctor saying it would take her family a while to become inculcated with the habit of using bottled water. Jordan didn’t see that as an adequate solution.
“I don’t want to be inculcated,” she said on a Saturday in September. “I want it fixed.”
The problem inched closer to a permanent resolution last week, when Newark and New Jersey officials announced residents could return to drinking their tap water with city-distributed water filters. Testing completed in September of more than 300 filters showed 97 percent effectively reduced lead levels below 10 parts per billion, which is less than the federally mandated “action level” of 15 parts per billion.
Activists, however, want to know why much of the state’s largest city had to rely on bottled water in the first place. Newark first became aware of elevated lead levels in 2017 after the city changed the water’s acidity, which may have made it more corrosive and caused lead from the pipes to enter the water supply. Two years later, lead levels reached a crisis point that kept about 15,000 households from drinking their tap water for more than a month.
“Why did this happen, how did this happen and could it have been prevented?” Anthony Diaz of the Newark Water Coalition advocacy group asked as he distributed water in the back of a church rectory. “Those are the questions we would like answered.”
In a crisis that contains echoes of the water-system failure in Flint, Newark residents were urged this summer to use bottled water for drinking, cooking and brushing their teeth after officials said city-provided filters may not have been effectively removing lead from the tap water. Starting on Aug. 12, residents cycled through four city-operated water distribution sites and countless other privately operated centers to stock up on free water each week.
Public-health experts consider any amount of lead to be dangerous, but the law requires that a city improve its corrosion controls if a certain number of homes test above 15 parts per billion. One water sample in Newark from May 2018 measured 182 parts per billion. Prolonged exposure to lead can cause high blood pressure, kidney damage and stillbirths. Young children who are exposed to lead are particularly likely to experience problems with their brain development and nervous systems.
Diaz said he worries about lead’s potential effects on the city’s students, who could face permanent cognitive issues. He said he’s particularly concerned about some researchers’ hypothesis that lead exposure could be linked with a propensity for violence, considering that Newark already deals with a high homicide rate. Lead also can impair academic performance and add to the achievement gap that commonly exists between affluent and impoverished students.
“How it changed the trajectory of the development of not only individuals, but the City of Newark — We haven’t really felt those ramifications yet, and no one’s really talking about it,” Diaz said.
Was the city aggressive or deficient?
In Newark, officials have said only homes served by one of the city’s two water treatment plants are affected by elevated lead levels. Corrosion control chemicals in the western half of the city have failed to keep lead in the water service lines from leaching into the water supply.
Even after six weeks of bottled-water distribution, residents and activists in September spoke of widespread confusion about which homes were affected by the lead and who was eligible to pick up water from the city. Many families were rationing water to get through the week, while activists tried to make people understand that boiling their tap water would not eradicate the problem.
As Bessie McKnight waited to pick up a case of water outside Boylan Recreation Center on a Friday in September, she said she was grateful the bottled water provided a safe drinking option for her four grandchildren. Still, she said it was difficult not to be able to turn on her faucet whenever she needed water.
“It is very difficult because every little drop counts,” McKnight, 56, said. “I try not to waste it.”
The city has not allowed reporters inside its water distribution sites, although they are in public buildings.
In the eyes of Bishop Jethro James Jr. of the city’s Paradise Baptist Church, city and state officials would have responded more aggressively to the lead crisis had it not been in a predominantly black and low-income city.
“If this was a neighborhood of predominantly wealthy Caucasian people, there would be jackhammers going right now,” James said.
In June 2018, the environmental advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council filed a lawsuit against Newark alleging that the city failed to provide clean water for its residents and misled them into thinking the water was safe. Newark is fighting the lawsuit in court, and Mayor Ras Baraka (D) told The Washington Post that the NRDC’s claims were “unscientific and not factual.”
Although Newark is often mentioned alongside Flint, Dimple Chaudhary, senior attorney at NRDC, said comparisons between the cities are difficult because researchers do not know how high Flint’s lead levels got or for how long they were elevated. In both Newark and Flint, Chaudhary said, the crises began with a failure to properly treat the water to control lead release.
Both cities also inadequately communicated with residents about the lead, Chaudhary said. Flint has been replacing its 18,000 lead service lines since 2016 and is in the final stages of the project.
Baraka has repeatedly rejected comparisons with Flint and said Newark acted to control the high lead levels as soon as officials knew there was a widespread problem. In May, the city started using a new corrosion control treatment that was expected to take several months to start working.
Officials in August announced a $120 million county-backed bond to replace the city’s 18,000 lead service lines in the next 24 to 30 months. A new lease agreement with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey also will provide $155 million, the city said this week. As residents now readjust to drinking filtered tap water, the state will pay for a program to help residents install their filters and test water samples from individual homes.
“I think that we are moving very aggressively,” Baraka told The Post. “And I think that we are going to be the only city in the country that has tried to fix this entire problem solely on their own.”
To Yvette Jordan, the city’s efforts have not been aggressive enough. For weeks, bottled water was placed strategically throughout her home: Five cases in the kitchen and seven next to the staircase, plus a bottle in the upstairs bathroom and a bottle at each of three water bowls for the couple’s dog and two cats. Sometimes Jordan and her husband picked up cases from city- or church-run distribution sites. Other times, they bought water with their own money.
The Jordans said they were frustrated that the city did not better communicate with residents about the crisis, like by holding more training sessions to educate people about the lead and the steps they should take. The city hosted a “state of water” town hall Wednesday and has held virtual information sessions about the crisis.
Yvette Jordan, a history teacher at Newark’s Central High School, talked with students about the lead issue in her social-justice class while city residents were urged to drink only bottled water. Some students told her they sometimes drank bottled water and other times drank tap water. Other students said they had been replacing water with juice or Kool-Aid — but they often combined their Kool-Aid mix with water from the faucet.
Jordan, 59, is a member of the Newark Education Workers Caucus, a social-justice-focused subset of the city’s teacher’s union that has joined the NRDC’s lawsuit against the city.
Baraka, the mayor, has called the NRDC outside agitators who are needlessly sowing panic among residents. Jordan said Baraka’s words remind her of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assertion in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that labeling a group as “outside agitators” dismisses attempts to rectify injustice.
“It’s the same thing now,” Jordan said. “NRDC and NEW Caucus are not outside agitators. There is injustice here, and that’s why we are doing what we’re doing.”
‘A slap in the face’
In a basement lacking air conditioning at St. Lucy’s Church in the city’s Central Ward, Lenny Thomas sits at a fold-up table for six hours on Saturdays and waits for residents to stop by to pick up bottled water.
“Would you like an option?” Thomas said to a woman on a Saturday in September as she surveyed boxes of water stacked against the wall. “You can have one of those cases there, which is approximately three gallons of water, or you can have that one over there that says ‘Poland Spring.’ It has six gallons of water.”
“I’ll take a case,” the woman said as she lifted a 24-pack of water bottles from the cases branded with the logos of Giant, Market Pantry, Shop Rite and Nestle.
“There you are!” Thomas, 72, exclaimed as the resident walked out.
As part of the Newark Water Coalition, Thomas and other volunteers have been distributing water to about 300 residents every week. They advocate for increased education about the water crisis, more treatment options for people affected by lead, and legislation to remove all the lead service lines in New Jersey. The group also wants the city to more clearly identify how this problem arose and to hold someone responsible.
The city first announced in September 2017 that it had exceeded the federal “action level” for lead and would begin taking inventory of Newark’s lead service lines and replacing them. The city again exceeded acceptable lead levels in December of that year.
As Newark again exceeded the action level for lead in June 2018, city officials repeatedly insisted the water was safe to drink. The city’s 2017 water quality report led with a statement from Baraka that Newark had “some of the best water in the State of New Jersey.”
“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,” Baraka wrote. “The only high lead readings were taken inside of older (pre-1986) one- and two-family homes that have lead pipes leading from the City’s pure water in these structures.”
Baraka told The Post that language in that document and others indicating the water was safe was meant to be considered alongside later mentions that some homes with lead service lines could have elevated lead levels. Still, he said, he “could see that it could have been clearer.”
The Environmental Protection Agency in October 2018 notified the state that Newark’s corrosion-control treatment was no longer keeping lead out of the water. The city began distributing filters to homes within days. Baraka said the city had not distributed filters earlier because officials were unaware the lead was a widespread problem and not affecting just a handful of older homes.
Newark then started handing out bottled water in August when the EPA urged it to do so. An ordinance passed in September will allow city officials to come onto people’s properties to replace their lead service lines with or without their permission — a move the mayor said protects renters from landlords who may not feel compelled to sign up for service line replacement.
As Amber Harrison and her husband were about to close on the purchase of their north Newark home last year, they learned the house was serviced by lead pipes. Harrison, 34, said she felt it was too late to back out of the sale, and the city assured her it was working to replace Newark’s lead service lines.
Harrison, a teacher at a New York City charter school, said she immediately started buying bottled water for her 9-year-old son, Dylan. Although officials have said residents can safely shower and wash dishes with unfiltered tap water, Harrison said she worries using tap water for those tasks still could cause harm. She and her husband have worked hard to make Dylan’s childhood easier than their own, Harrison said, and she’s disheartened she has to fight for him to have clean drinking water.
“One thing we made a pact on is ensuring that our kid is able to have the necessities that weren’t necessarily in reach for us growing up,” she said. “And it’s almost kind of like a slap in the face.”
Harrison said she’s also concerned that her father-in-law, who in June was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, may have contracted the cancer from drinking the city’s unfiltered tap water for the past year. He has Type 2 diabetes, she said, and drinks more water than many people.
City officials long have talked about the “renaissance” they say is sweeping over Newark as a wave of development floods downtown. But Diaz, of the Newark Water Coalition, said the city’s handling of the lead issue gives him little confidence that the administration can fix other major issues central to the city’s revival.
“When you have a population that’s focused on crime, unemployment, getting a job, keeping food on the table, keeping the lights turned on, they can’t take on another issue,” said Diaz, 33. “Life is already so hard for them, and there’s already this level of trauma in this city. And you just add something else to it.”
During a quiet moment at a water distribution site last month, Diaz loaded cases of water bottles onto a red hand truck to move them closer to the room’s entrance.
“I’m going to start having nightmares about this,” Diaz joked as he tipped the hand truck onto its back wheels.
Then he pushed the cart toward the door, unloaded the water bottles and brought the hand truck back across the room for more.