Advocates take to the street August 26, 2019, to protest about the water crisis outside the MTV Video Music Awards.
Photo: AP

Monday, on the night of the MTV Video Music Awards, some 150 people arrived at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, to protest. Police officers—on horses and in helicopters—were prepared to block activists, but nothing would stop Newark Water Coalition co-founder and organizer Anthony Diaz from spreading his message.

The city where he grew up and where many of his close friends live is in the midst of a tragic water crisis. Since at least 2017, the city has been dealing with lead levels in its water supply that exceed the Environmental Protection Agency’s guidelines for recommending action be taken.

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This week, after years of advocates raising the alarm on the issue, the city—with the support of the county and state—announced a $120 million plan to replace the city’s lead pipes. Diaz, however, is hesitant to trust that the city can handle this gargantuan task of replacing some 18,000 lead service lines in three years, he told Earther.

“When people applaud this $120 million loan saying, ‘Hey, we have a plan now in place,’ I don’t have any faith that they’re going to execute this plan,” Diaz said.

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Corroding pipes are to blame for the lead entering the water supply. A miscalculated chemical mixture of additives in the water supply seemed to have failed to prevent corrosion in the pipes, according to the New York Times. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)—which is suing Newark and New Jersey officials over their failed actions—found that some homes saw lead levels reach as high as 953 parts per billion this year. The federal action level is 15 parts per billion. And health officials are clear: No level of lead exposure is safe.

Does all this sound familiar? That’s because it is. The city of Flint, Michigan, has been suffering from a similar situation: Years of delayed action from city officials exposed city residents to high levels of lead in their water supply, too. Both cities suffer high poverty rates and are predominantly black. Leaders from both cities told residents time and time again that the water was safe when it really was not. The parallels can’t go without notice.

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“Trust will be rebuilt (slowly) with increased transparency and decision making driven by science and public health and children’s health protection,” Mona Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician in Flint whose research helped unearth the water crisis, told Earther in an email. “There is also a need, like in Flint, to commit to the long term resources to mitigate the impact of the crisis and promote the development of children. And of course, like most environmental injustices, there is a critical role in recovery for participatory democracy and self-determination and, thus, involving impacted community in future decision making.”

That’s why outspoken advocates like Diaz are nervous with how Newark officials plan to use the $120 million to replace the city’s outdated infrastructure. Every Saturday, he and some 15 other members of the Newark Water Coalition, hold water distributions to anyone who wants it—something he believes the city should be doing. The city is distributing water but limits free water only to residents who have lead service lines and receive water from the Pequannock water treatment plant where engineers failed to properly treat the water. That’s only 14,000 homes in a city of more than 280,000 people, reports NJ.com.

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“We’re not the city,” Diaz told Earther. “We don’t have resources like that. We all work full-time jobs, and it’s hard.”

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, left, with New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy to his right.
Photo: AP

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He’d like to see some type of federal oversight over this plan and the city’s continued response to the water crisis. It’s unclear what that may look like in Newark, but in Flint, emergency declarations from the city, state, and federal government triggered a response from a number of government groups, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the EPA. This resulted in health assessments and frequent water testing, according to an analysis from public health researchers.

Already, the EPA has gotten involved in Newark—it pressured the city to hand out free water last month. The agency has announced plans to monitor the water in partnership with the city, but advocates want some kind of formal oversight.

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Yvette Jordan, a public high school history teacher who lives and works in the city and is part of the Newark Education Workers Caucus, which is suing the city and state alongside NRDC, is glad to see the pipe replacement underway. That doesn’t mean she trusts the city to manage this process on its own, however.

“In between now and then, we still need bottled water, and as the lines are being replaced, enforcement of how it is done and a timeline that is reasonable and adhered to,” Jordan told Earther. “We don’t feel the city can manage that on their own. We would like the federal regulator or the federal judge to actually set in stone a timeline and have someone … to oversee and watch the implementation of this plan.”

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In the meantime—and if anything of the sort even happens—residents have little option but to rely on bottled water and their leaders to make the right calls. All Jordan wants is honesty from Newark’s elected officials. The truth can go a long way in building trust among some of Newark’s skeptical residents.

Update August 29, 2019, 1:55 p.m. ET: This story has been updated with a comment from Mona Hanna-Attisha.

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