Newark’s water is safe to drink when filtered through PUR water filters, even with elevated lead levels, city and state officials announced Monday, after six weeks of testing sparked by the results of an earlier batch of tests that suggested the opposite.
Of the more than 300 filters tested, they were 97 percent effective at reducing lead levels to below 10 parts per billion (below federal standards), and 99 percent effective when the tap water was flushed for five minutes and then filtered, Governor Phil Murphy said at a packed press conference at Newark City Hall on Monday afternoon.
“These results are a welcome jolt of positive news that allow us collectively to charge ahead in implementing our short, medium and long-term solutions,” Governor Murphy said.
The city, state and federal governments had been working together to collect more than 1,700 water samples to determine the effectiveness of the filters. The extensive sampling came after the Environmental Protection Agency requested that Newark give out bottled water some residents on August 9, lurching the city’s ongoing water crisis into the national spotlight once again.
“We thank God that the filters work, but we are not in any way having a victory lap, ‘cause this not a victory for us,” Mayor Ras Baraka said. “It is good news in a long and arduous task to make sure we have clean drinking water.”
In the near-term, affected residents (that’s those with lead service lines in parts of the city serviced by the Pequannock treatment plant) can continue to collect free bottled water at one of four distribution sites, though they’re encouraged to switch back to using water filters distributed by the city.
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A new chemical treatment at the Pequannock water treatment plant, where these problems originated, will start to take effect early next year, decreasing the need for filtration. And in the long-term, a $120 million dollar bond from Essex County, slated to arrive in the city’s coffers by November, will let Newark fast-track replacement of all the city’s approximately 18,000 lead service lines in under three years, at no cost to residents.
But this “welcome jolt of positive news,” as Murphy put it at Monday’s press conference, did little to assuage concerned resident who’ve gotten misleading and confusing information about their water at times from the media, and at times the city itself.
“The water’s still messed up,” said Chanel Dean, a 34-year-old security guard who lives in the West Ward. “Just yesterday, I was scared to take a bath ‘cause when I turned on the water, first it was brown, then it turned white, then it turned brown again.”
Even with Monday’s news that filters will remove lead from the water, Dean said she’s not budging.
“I wouldn’t drink the water ‘cause I seen what the water looks like and I’m pretty sure everybody else sees what the water looks like,” she said.
Another resident, 77-year-old Johnny Ballard, seemed similarly uninterested in whether or not the filters were effective.
“I been buying water,” for years, he said. “I’m not gonna use that water, I only use it shower in. That’s it. No drinking water for me, not that water, not until they get it right.”
Newark’s water issues go back for years. In 2017, water testing reported to the state surpassed federal standards on an acceptable amount of lead, and there were earlier issues with lead drinking water at schools.
An independent report commissioned by the city later found that chemicals added to water at the Pequonnock treatment plant, which were supposed to act as a coating inside lead pipes to prevent lead from leaching into the water, stopped working, likely because of a bump in the water’s acidity that was meant to address other regulations on clean water.
While top city officials at the Water Department were alerted to the potential for widespread problems originating at this one plant as early as February of 2018, according to an email released as part of an ongoing federal lawsuit, city officials continued to tell the public nothing was wrong; including a notorious Facebook post from April 26th, 2018 that claimed in all caps: “NEWARK’S WATER IS ABSOLUTELY SAFE TO DRINK…”
It wasn’t until the fall of 2018 that the city came clean with the breadth of the issues, and it did so only after it had been sued by the Natural Resources Defense Council. That litigation is still ongoing. Since then activists with Newark Water Coalition, a local group that sprung up last year, have cited concerns about people not having access to filters, not getting proper information on how to use and install them, and a general lack of information making it into neighborhoods about who is at risk and how they should protect themselves.
Because of those ongoing issues, Erik Olson, the senior strategic director for health and food at the NRDC, said he took Monday’s announcement with cautious optimism.
“Trust, but verify,” he said. “The city, state, and federal Environmental Protection Agency should provide all test results and the protocols used to test the filters to the public, so Newark residents can feel confident that filters will protect their health. Anything less than full transparency will breed further distrust and skepticism.”
While the state and city officials described their preliminary findings Monday, they said an actual report with data with results from the water testing would be released in the coming weeks.
Gwynne Hogan is an associate producer at WNYC. You can follow her on Twitter at @GwynneFitz.