NEWARK, N.J. – The tap water ran over Yvette Jordan's hands as she washed a red plastic cup, then a green cup and then a white ceramic bowl. In the south Newark home where she has lived since 1989, Jordan moved a case of 24 plastic water bottles away from a stack next to the kitchen sink.
Her husband, Frank, 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. "I don't want to be inculcated," she said. "I want it fixed."
'Why did this happen?'
The problem inched closer to a resolution last week, when Newark and New Jersey officials said residents could return to drinking their tap water with city-distributed water filters. Testing completed in September of more than 300 filters showed 97% 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 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 tap water for more than a month.
"Why did this happen, how did this happen and could it have been prevented?" asked Anthony Diaz of the Newark Water Coalition group.
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 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.
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. Children who are exposed to lead are particularly likely to experience problems with their brain development and nervous systems. "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," Diaz said.
Even after six weeks of bottled-water distribution, residents and activists 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 stressed that boiling tap water would not eradicate the problem.
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 Democratic Mayor Ras Baraka said the NRDC's claims were "unscientific and not factual."
Although Newark is often mentioned alongside Flint, Dimple Chaudhary, senior attorney at NRDC, said comparisons are difficult because researchers do not know how high Flint's lead levels got. In both Newark and Flint, Chaudhary said, the crises began with a failure to properly treat the water to control lead release.
'There is injustice here'
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 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 will provide $155 million, the city said. 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 said. "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 has not been aggressive enough. She said Baraka's words remind her of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assertion that labeling a group as "outside agitators" dismisses attempts to rectify injustice. "It's the same thing now," she said. NRDC and other organizations "are not outside agitators. There is injustice here, and that's why we are doing what we're doing."