Cory Booker spoke forcefully during the Democratic debate Thursday evening about lead contamination in drinking water in Flint, Mich., and other ways pollution disproportionately afflicts poor and minority communities.
But he did not specifically mention the lead crisis happening in his own backyard — in Newark, N.J., the city he ran as mayor for seven years.
The exclusion of Newark may have been inadvertent, with the New Jersey senator's comments about lead contamination coming at the end of a longer answer about racial injustice. Indeed, Booker has been more than willing to talk about Newark's water woes on social media and elsewhere during the campaign.
But the GOP latched onto Newark's lead problems during the debate, with the Republican National Committee writing on Twitter that Booker "can't escape his record of failure."
At the very least, the omission highlights how hard public health advocates say it is to draw attention to any individual city's lead contamination — even when one of its former mayors has a national audience.
"Cory believes that every American deserves clean, safe water to drink and throughout his career has worked to right the wrongs of lead contamination in our drinking water that disproportionately impact low-income communities and communities of color like Newark," Booker campaign spokeswoman Sabrina Singh said on Friday.
Booker has made discussion of environmental justice — the idea that low-income and minority neighborhoods need to be treated fairly by environmental laws — a central tenet of his pitch for the presidency.
As a senator, Booker has used his position on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee to push for strengthening federal environmental justice programs and funneling federal dollars to address local drinking water programs.
The campaign noted that Booker has met with the regional Environmental Protection Agency administrator about the issue and has urged the agency to provide Newark residents with assistance. Just this week the Senate approved a bill authored by Booker giving states facing water crises access to more federal funds.
The leaching of lead, a dangerous neurotoxin that stunts childhood brain development, into tap water is a far more prevalent problem than people who just read headlines about Flint — the most well-known city with lead issues — may realize. Almost 3,800 areas have poisoning rates far higher than the city, according to a 2017 Reuters analysis. It's a stunning statistic that Booker seemed to highlight during the debate in Houston.
"If you've talked to someone who's a parent of a child has had permanent brain damage because of lead, you'll know this is a national problem, because there's over 3,000 jurisdictions in America where children have more than twice the blood lead levels of Flint, Mich.," Booker said. At this point, ABC News correspondent Linsey Davis began trying to cut off Booker to move on to a commercial break.
Newark's crisis reached a new high last month, more than two years after Newark began tackling high levels of lead in its drinking water, and officials there began handing out cases of bottled water to residents.
Booker stepped down as mayor in 2013 to take his Senate seat, five years before elevated lead levels were discovered in Newark's tap water supply. But questions about his role in the crisis have still dogged his campaign.
As The Star-Ledger in Newark reported last year, Newark officials may have "inadvertently caused lead levels to spike" in or around 2012 after tweaking the tap water's acidity to avoid violating a separate federal standard on possibly carcinogenic chemicals in the water. The more acidic water is more corrosive, possibly causing lead from old pipes to dissolve.
That's the connection the RNC latched onto:
Re-Meet CORY BOOKER: He can’t escape his record of failure as mayor of Newark, NJ.— GOP (@GOP) September 13, 2019
Despite making environmental protections a “central tenet of his social justice platform,” a growing water crisis in Newark has dredged up his record of mismanagement w/ the city’s water system. pic.twitter.com/0rwfSiQuiB
In interviews, Booker has said he is not responsible for Newark's lead crisis. "When I was mayor the water was being treated properly and we didn't have this problem," he told BuzzFeed News this week.
Newark's current mayor, Ras Baraka (D), has written an open letter to President Trump requesting help from the federal government. The price for fixing Newark's lead problems, he wrote, is $70 million — a steep cost for a city struggling with poverty as much as Newark is.
Baraka wrote that “although the situation in Newark is very different from that of Flint, our need to replace lead service lines is equally urgent.”
More on the Democratic debate:
- Environmentalist activists still furious: After the debate, the Sunrise Movemment, League of Conservation Voters and other groups issued scathing statements about the lack of climate-related questions from ABC News anchors, renewing their calls for a climate-focused debate that so far the Democratic National Committee has rejected. “I don’t know how Tom Perez and DNC leaders can look themselves in the mirror after tonight," said Sunrise Movement co-founder Varshini Prakash.
- No questions about fracking: Which, of course, is strange given that Houston is at the heart of the U.S. hydraulic fracturing boom. Instead, Booker asked about his vegan diet while many of the other candidates were simply given the chance to outline their existing climate change plans.
— “The light is not as good”: Meanwhile, days after his administration announced it would roll back rules for energy-efficient lightbulbs, the president appeared to defend the move by saying the energy efficient bulbs literally cast him in an unfavorable light. "People said what's with the lightbulb? I said here’s the story, and I looked at it: The bulb that we're being forced to use — No. 1, to me, most importantly, the light's no good. I always look orange," Trump said during his remarks at the policy retreat for House Republicans, according to NBC News. He added: “It's many times more expensive than that old incandescent bulb that worked very well…And the light is not as good.”
— Trump administration outlines what drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge will likely look like: In a final environmental impact statement released Thursday, the Interior Department said it is seeking the most aggressive development option for oil and gas exploration in the coastal plain of the Alaskan refuge.
The plan: It calls for constructing up to four locations for airstrips and well pads, 175 miles of road, vertical pipeline supports, a seawater treatment plant and a barge landing and storage site, The Post’s Steven Mufson and Juliet Eilperin report. Environmental groups swiftly criticized the administration’s preferred plan for the area long closed off to drilling. Defenders of Wildlife called the plan “destructive” and the group’s chief executive called the actions “categorically illegal.” The Arctic program director of the Wilderness Society Lois Epstein said: “The sprawl from oil activities in the coastal plain allowed under the Tax Act would devastate this ecologically sensitive landscape.”
Cheers from Alaska’s lawmakers an the petroleum industry: “All three members of Alaska’s congressional delegation, as well as the American Petroleum Institute, hailed the administration’s plan,” Eilperin and Mufson write. “I’m hopeful we can now move to a lease sale in the very near future, just as Congress intended, so that we can continue to strengthen our economy, our energy security, and our long-term prosperity,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said.
And jeers from Democrats: House Democrats approved a mostly symbolic bill Thursday banning oil and gas drilling in the refuge. The bill passed 225-193 with the help of four Republicans, but it’s not expected to go anywhere in the Senate. The bill is meant to reinstate a decades-long ban on drilling in the region. In 2017, Republicans included a measure in a tax law to open up part of ANWR to drilling.
— Beekeepers vs. EPA: An environmental organization representing leaders in the beekeeping industry filed lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency last week over its move to reauthorize an insecticide, sulfoxaflor, that’s been known to harm honeybee colonies. The petitioners in the suit, which was filed last week in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco, “are asking the court to review the environmental agency’s decision in July to allow the use of sulfoxaflor on crops, the latest twist in a series of challenges and approvals surrounding its use, according to a summary of those actions on the E.P.A.’s website,” the New York Times reports. “That chemical, sulfoxaflor, is absorbed into plants, where it can be ingested by pollinating bees. When the bees return to the hive, they can transfer the chemical to the colony. This affects the bees’ ability to breed and survive according to studies cited by Earthjustice, whose lawyer Gregory C. Loarie is representing the petitioners,” according to the Times.
— The latest on the BLM relocation: Interior Secretary David Bernhardt has given the greenlight for a plan to pay employees of the Bureau of Land Management bonuses if the agree to relocate to the agency’s new headquarters in Grand Junction, Colo. or to other locations in Western states. To get the bonus, however, relocating employees have to “sign a written service agreement committing to complete two years of employment with the BLM" at the new location, E&E News reports, citing an email acting agency head William Perry Pendley sent to Washington staffers. The bonus would be a one-time payment of 25 percent of their annual base pay.
— A bipartisan climate caucus in the works: A bipartisan pair of senators — Sens. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) — are working on forming the chamber’s first bipartisan caucus to address climate change, the Washington Examiner reports. The senators’ staff said it the group will be launched in the coming weeks. “Combating climate change will require all of us — Democrats and Republicans — to come together around bipartisan solutions” Coons told the publication. Braun said climate change should be a “bridge issue.”
— Mark your calendar: The Post’s Juliet Eilperin will interview Interior Secretary Bernhardt next month at the annual Society of Environmental Journalists conference that will be held in Fort Collins, Colo.
— A storm is still brewing: A tropical system, that could soon form into Tropical Storm Humberto, could impact the hurricane-ravaged Bahamas as well as Florida and parts of the Southeast United States, The Post’s Matthew Cappucci and Jason Samenow report. The hard-hit northwest Bahamas are under a tropical storm warning, and tropical storm conditions could begin in the region as early as Friday morning. “After exiting the Bahamas, the Hurricane Center’s track forecast brings the potential storm near Florida’s east coast,” they write. “As described below, there is significant uncertainty with respect to the potential storm’s exact track and areas along the Southeast coast north of Florida should also monitor the storm.”
- The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources holds a hearing on the benefits and potential challenges of New Jersey’s growing offshore wind industry on Sept. 16.
- The House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Environment holds a hearing on environmental inequalities in air and water quality in Michigan on Sept. 16.
- The Senate Energy and Natural Resources holds a hearing on sourcing and use of minerals needed for clean energy technologies on Sept. 17.
- The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change holds a hearing on pathways to net-zero industrial emissions on Sept. 18.
- The House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment holds a hearing on the priorities and policy initiatives under the Clean Water Act on Sept. 18.
— To bark or not to bark: The Post spoke to dogs in Chevy Chase Village about a recently disestablished dog park.