Responding to reports that filters are not protecting residents from elevated lead levels in their drinking water, Newark officials on Sunday said they will distribute bottled water to households with old lead pipes after federal officials urged the city to take action “as soon as possible.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued its recommendation to Newark in a letter Friday, in the wake of recent surveys that showed the water in two of three tested homes still contained high lead levels despite the use of filters. The letter told the state’s largest city that it was “essential” to warn residents not to rely on filters.

In a joint statement issued Sunday afternoon, Gov. Phil Murphy and Mayor Ras Baraka said safe drinking water was critically important and called on the federal government to help.

“As we carefully evaluate our options and the data available to us, it is important to understand that the city and state will need support and assistance from the federal government if bottled water is to be provided and distributed to impacted residents,” the statement said.

Only those residents served by the city’s Pequannock water treatment plant who have received filters because they have lead service lines (pipes connecting underground water mains to homes) will be able to pick up water.

“It’s a preliminary caution, I just think people want to be cautious about it. It’s not going to hurt anybody to give out the water,” Baraka told NJ Advance Media earlier on Sunday. “We are going to do it until we figure out if the issue is the filter.”

The following locations will distribute bottled water: the Newark Department of Health and Wellness at 110 William St., Bo Porter Sports Complex at 378 Lyons Ave., Boylan Street Recreation Center at 916 South Orange Ave. and the Vince Lombardi Center at 201 Bloomfield Ave.

The city has already handed out 38,000 free filters meant to protect residents from elevated lead levels in the water — a crisis Newark has been grappling with for nearly three years — but distributing bottled water marks a first.

During a press conference on Saturday, Baraka shared the preliminary results of the most recent filter tests and urged residents to flush the water for five minutes before using the filters. He said pregnant women or families with young children should use bottled water. It’s still unclear why the filters — which are nationally certified and used across the country, including the Flint, Michigan water crisis — weren’t removing lead at expected levels.

At the press conference Baraka did not mention the EPA’s request for Newark to distribute bottled water but said the city was in talks with the state and federal government on their options.

“What we were trying to do is figure out the logistics with that before we went full throttle,” he said Sunday. The EPA asked Newark to respond to its recommendation by Monday and Baraka said the city plans to formally do so.

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“EPA believes that, out of an abundance of caution, residents who have lead service lines should be advised to use bottled water for drinking and cooking until the results of the filter testing are fully understood, additional sampling is performed, and a reliable solution can be implemented,” the agency said in a statement late Saturday night, following the press conference.

“We believe it is the responsibility of the city of Newark to provide such bottled water as soon as possible,” the agency wrote in its Friday letter, adding that the EPA “is prepared to take appropriate action” to ensure protection of public health should the state and city not “promptly undertake these recommended actions.”

New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection CommissionerCatherine McCabe previously said the state was prepared to help Newark should they decide to distribute bottled water.

The Pequannock water treatment plant, which services most of Newark except the East Ward, is run by the city and sells water to neighboring municipalities, such as Bloomfield and Belleville. Both towns also have elevated lead levels, though the EPA did not immediately suggest bottled water for surrounding municipalities.

Bloomfield Mayor Michael Venezia said the township would begin testing its filters. About 3,000 have been distributed. “While we are working towards the goal of no longer relying on Newark’s water system, at this point we remain a direct user of the system and thus we are always concerned whenever there is a problem with that system,” Venezia said.

Lead began leaching into the water in 2017 when the water treatment at the Pequannock system failed, causing old lead pipes to corrode into the drinking supply. While the city changed the treatment, officials in October began distributing water filters to affected residents across more than 15,000 homes with known lead services lines.

The water treatment at the Wanaque water plant, which services the East Ward and slivers of the North and South wards, remains effective, although some homes in that area have also recorded elevated lead levels.

Murphy and Baraka stressed that long-term distribution of bottled water could impact the city’s new corrosion control treatment which began in May and could take up to eight months to take full effect. The chemical treatment creates a protective layer inside old lead pipes and is one of the city’s solutions as it works to replace every lead service line.

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“Residents must continue to keep city water flowing through their pipes because this is necessary to move the orthophosphate through the system and form a protective coating around the inner lining of the pipes,” Murphy and Baraka said.

A city official stressed that residents picking up bottled water can help the city by continuing to flush the water in their homes.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which is suing the city over its handling of the lead water crisis, has long pushed the city to distribute bottled water. The group is asking a judge to mandate the city to give its most vulnerable residents bottled water or expand its filter program, including helping with installation. The hearing on their motion starts Thursday.

In court records filed in the NRDC case late Saturday night, Newark’s legal counsel said the city was evaluating the EPA’s recommendation. In the meantime, the city would tell residents through robocalls, social media and letters about flushing the water prior to filter use.

City officials said the two samples that returned with lead levels above the federal limit of 15 parts per billion were taken in extreme conditions, meaning the water was stagnant for five to 11 hours. Officials acknowledged the small sample size and assured more testing is on the way.

“We are very cautious about what’s happening, we are very concerned,” Baraka said Saturday. “This is preliminary precaution. We look forward to evaluating the next test results.”

No amount of lead is safe. The contaminant is particularly harmful for children, impacting cognition and behavior.

While it’s still unknown why the filters at two homes were not properly working, the EPA said the effectiveness of filters largely depends on how they are used, the water chemistry and the how much lead is in the water.

The PUR filters being used by the city are nationally certified to absorb no more 150 parts per billion of lead, according to the NRDC.

Posted Aug 11, 2019


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