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Newark Lead Crisis Expands as N.J. Asks for Federal Help (3)

Aug. 13, 2019, 2:05 PMUpdated: Aug. 13, 2019, 7:19 PM

New test results indicate that the extent of the lead contamination crisis in Newark, N.J., may be broader than previously thought and the state now says it needs federal help to respond, according to new court filings.

The latest lead problems, which first came to light Aug. 9, were initially believed to be confined to one of Newark’s two drinking water treatment plants.

But test results now show that water from homes serviced by the second treatment plant also has elevated lead levels, although not as severe as water from the first plant. Newark officials outlined the test results in an Aug. 12 court filing in a lawsuit from the Natural Resources Defense Council over the city’s response to its lead issues.

Frank Baraff, the city’s spokesman, said the most recent testing of water from this second treatment plant, which services Newark’s western half, shows that lead levels have declined to below a federal threshold in recent weeks. Neither state nor federal officials have asked the city to provide bottled water to residents served by this plant, he added.

Baraff said this issue will be discussed during an Aug. 15 hearing in the NRDC lawsuit.

Limited Resources

State and city officials started providing bottled water to some residents over the weekend at the request of the Environmental Protection Agency. Newark has been dealing with elevated lead levels for months, but new samples found that even filtered water contained high amounts of lead, a toxic metal that can cause irreversible neurological damage to children and fetuses.

Catherine R. McCabe, New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection commissioner, is calling for more federal intervention.

“The City and the State have limited emergency water supplies and financial resources,” she said in an Aug. 12 letter to the EPA. “And we do not yet know how long we will be able to continue to provide bottled water.”

Questions About Filters

McCabe, who was herself a senior EPA official for more than a decade before coming to New Jersey in 2017, also said the agency needs to clarify its stance on the effectiveness of lead water filters. Newark relied on EPA advice that home filters can effectively keep lead levels below safety thresholds, she said.

The new test results from Newark raise questions not only about the filters themselves, “they raise questions about the advice EPA has given to us and potentially to other jurisdictions facing similar concerns,” McCabe said.

The EPA issued a statement late on Aug. 12 saying that it has specialists on the ground in Newark providing technical assistance, but the agency didn’t address the state’s request for financial support or for more clarity on the effectiveness of filters.

Filter Mystery

The filter maker PUR has sent a team of scientists to Newark, and the nonprofit product testing firm NSF International, which certified many of the filters in use there, is also working on the problem.

Rick Andrew, head of global business development with NSF’s water division, said scientists are baffled why these filters appear to be failing in Newark, when testing showed they were effective in other cities with lead problems, including Flint, Mich.

It’s possible the filters in Newark were installed on faucets incorrectly or that they were used with hot water, which can cause damage, Andrew told Bloomberg Environment. It’s possible the lead in Newark’s water exceeded the maximum amount that the filters could handle, he added.

Until more testing can be done on the filters and the water itself, scientists can’t say what the likely cause of this latest lead spike is, he said.

The consumer products company Helen of Troy Ltd., which owns PUR, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Echoes of Flint?

The Newark situation bears some similarities to the water crisis in Flint, but is also different in important ways, Erik D. Olson, a senior director with NRDC, said. He has been working on the group’s lawsuit against Newark.

In both instances, city officials didn’t go far enough in removing and replacing lead pipes, instead opting to try to manage their lead issues while keeping their aging infrastructure in place, he said.

However, Olson said he hasn’t yet seen evidence in Newark of the type of gross negligence that characterized the Flint crisis.

For example, he said, Newark officials have been trying to prevent their lead pipes from corroding by adding an anti-corrosion treatment to their water—although that treatment now appears to have been ineffective.

Flint officials, on the other hand, didn’t use any anti-corrosion treatment, even after they switched the source of the city’s drinking water to the highly corrosive Flint River, he said.

The NRDC’s lawsuit against Newark is Newark Educ. Workers Caucus v. Newark, D.N.J., No. 2:18-cv-11025, brief filed 8/12/19.

—With assistance from Elise Young (Bloomberg).

(Updated with additional detail beginning in the 12th paragraph.)

To contact the reporter on this story: David Schultz in Washington at (Bloomberg Environment)

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Gregory Henderson at (Bloomberg Environment); Jean Fogarty at (Bloomberg Environment); Anna Yukhananov at (Bloomberg Environment)