Health and Medicine People and Community

Is Newark the next Flint?

University of Miami experts in health geography, law, and public health weigh in on some of the issues surrounding the water-contamination crisis in New Jersey’s largest city.
A water distribution site in Newark, New Jersey, where the EPA detected elevated levels of lead in drinking water in several residential homes.

Volunteer Matthew Tiggs, left, helps Newark resident Mack Mayton load cases of bottled water into the trunk of his car in Newark, N.J. Photo: Kathy Willens/Associated Press

The shootings and other violent street crimes have long placed them in peril. Now, residents in some of Newark, New Jersey’s most underserved communities are facing a new threat—one that is invisible to the naked eye but can inflict its own harm: elevated levels of lead in their drinking water.

Indeed, the lead crisis in New Jersey’s largest city has reached a tipping point, as thousands of residents in mostly African-American and low-income neighborhoods brave long lines and the heat to pick up bottled water after the Environmental Protection Agency warned that several samples of filtered drinking water taken from residential homes had lead levels exceeding 15 parts per billion, the federal threshold requiring action.

Newark had long denied that it even had a problem with its drinking water, despite the many warning signs. But now, the investigation is on to determine exactly when lead started leaching into the water supply.

Outdated plumbing systems and an aging infrastructure are most likely to blame.

The crisis has drawn comparisons to Flint, Michigan, where only a few years ago lead and other toxins seeping into the water supply as a result of cost-cutting measures resulted in a public health crisis that prompted then-President Barack Obama to declare a state of emergency.

Similar to the situation in Flint, many of the residents affected by the lead crisis in Newark live in poor neighborhoods.

“And this is not surprising considering that racial and ethnic minorities and people of low socioeconomic status remain disproportionately overrepresented among those with access problems,” said Imelda K. Moise, a health geographer and assistant professor of geography and regional studies in the University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences, whose research focuses on families and communities at risk.

“Access is a broad term that includes everything from a person’s ability to find consistent sources of safe drinking water to whether they have access to clean water that helps them meet their sanitation and hygiene needs. In this instance, lack of safe drinking water extends beyond Flint and Newark, and may contribute to disparities in health outcomes,” Moise said.

Low-income residents, she said, are more likely to live in older homes with antiquated plumping and fixtures that may expose them to lead contamination. But improving drinking water infrastructure, she explained, is not enough. “It may be necessary to focus our attention on addressing the sustained racial residential segregation that may be contributing to this public health crisis in racially segregated neighborhoods,” Moise said.

The social determinants of health—the conditions that exist in places where people live and work—can play a major role in health risks and outcomes, said Naresh Kumar, an associate professor of environmental health in the Miller School of Medicine Department of Public Health Sciences. “In Newark, people living in poor housing and in old homes with lead pipes are especially at risk,” he said.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Newark Education Workers Caucus, also known as the NEW Caucus, are suing New Jersey and city of Newark officials for violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act. The lawsuit is pending.

But just how long it winds its way through the courts is hard to say, said Jessica Owley, a professor of law in the School of Law who specializes in environmental law.

“It could be that the needed solution here is a near full-scale replacement of Newark’s water infrastructure, but that cannot be done quickly or cheaply,” she said. “It is early on to guess what the parties or court might do in this case. The Environmental Protection Agency is working with New Jersey to begin new rounds of testing and making a plan for compliance. It could be that the government agencies bring NRDC, the NEW Caucus and community members into the efforts with them to work together in a collaborative and open way. In that case, we might see a settlement that sets a path forward that included community involvement.”

Another possibility: The case remains under the jurisdiction of the federal courts, which will continue to require monitoring and status updates, perhaps governed by a consent decree, said Owley.

“I don’t think anyone here expects an easy or quick resolution,” she said.

Owley weighs in on some of the other legal aspects of the crisis.

What are some of the arguments in the NRDC and NEW Caucus lawsuit against New Jersey and the City of Newark?

The NRDC and the NEW Caucus assert that there are dangerous levels of lead in Newark’s drinking water. NRDC has been pursuing this issue for a couple of years already with early lawsuits just seeking the data from lead testing and trying to learn whether the water was contaminated and whether the chosen water treatment techniques were working. When they obtained access to the records, they saw what appear to be repeated failures to meet the standards and dangerously high levels of lead. Lead in drinking water often comes from old lead pipes that were used before people understood the danger lead would pose. Communities with older infrastructure are particularly at risk. Add to these old pipes more corrosive water and the problem is magnified. For example, when Flint, Michigan, switched its water source, one of the problems was the higher corrosiveness of the water causing more lead contamination. NRDC asserts that Newark’s water is also corrosive and lead contamination levels are high. NRDC is arguing not only that the lead levels exceed legal limits but also that the City of Newark has failed to comply with requirements for monitoring and testing the water. NRDC also argues that Newark hid this information from its citizens by not issuing public notifications about the results. The records of testing provided by Newark itself (after a court order) appear to demonstrate that repeated results far exceeded the federal standards.

In another development that has potential implications on drinking water, the EPA has proposed changes to the Clean Water Act permitting rules to fast-track natural gas pipelines and other major infrastructure projects. Specifically, the changes would impose a one-year deadline on states to review new project proposals. How could such changes impact states’ ability to protect essential drinking water sources?

The link between the Clean Water Act permits and drinking water can sometimes be hard to predict. The Clean Water Act governs discharges into navigable waterways like rivers and lakes. The statute prohibits all discharges of all pollutants unless the discharger has a permit. Because of this important yet challenging goal, the process for obtaining a permit can be slow. The permit must set acceptable levels for all potential pollutants including temperature. The permitting process is a public one that facilitates input and involvement from many stakeholders including water users, tribal officials, and local governments. The Trump administration is seeking to speed up that process for energy infrastructure projects including natural gas pipelines. This makes people nervous because of concerns about gas polluting waterways. While the Clean Water Act doesn’t govern drinking water directly, it governs the waterways that are often the source of drinking water. Municipalities may be concerned that their water treatment facilities will not be prepared for the added pollutants that might be entering the waterways.

What’s the major difference between the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Water Act?

The federal government began regulating water early on and specifically started making rules governing water pollution in 1948. However, it was the 1972 Clean Water Act that established a comprehensive national law with the goal of eliminating water pollution. It is a complex law that involves regulating discharges into waterways, setting water quality standards, and protecting wetlands. Its focus is on the health of our waterways. It does not set the standards on the water coming out of our taps. In 1974, Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act. Viewed as a supplement to the Clean Water Act, it regulates contaminants in drinking water supplied by public water systems. Private wells are not regulated by the EPA, nor is bottled water. The Act requires the EPA to cooperate with states to ensure the water quality of public sources. The SDWA requires the EPA to set national drinking standards that include limits on pollutants and rules about the technologies and techniques used at water treatment facilities. The SDWA therefore is the law that sets the standards for how much lead is allowable and what processes can be used to clean the water. Acknowledging that no level of lead consumption is safe, particularly for children, the EPA has set the goal of zero lead but only requires action if levels exceed 1.3 parts per billion in more than 10