City of Newark Reaches Settlement In Lead Pipe Lawsuit

by Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

On Tuesday, the city of Newark, New Jersey settled years-long litigation surrounding the dangerously high levels of lead in the city’s drinking water. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Newark Education Workers Caucus (NEW) sued state officials in June 2018 for violations of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, asking not for fines, but that the city find an implement a swift solution. The proposed settlement will require the city of Newark to finish the replacement of lead piping at no cost to the residents of the city. 

Why This Matters: Lead piping continues to plague millions of Americans. One recent study found that 80% of American homes have some level of lead in their water, and 40% have more than the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommended limit.

Despite these recommendations, there is no safe level of lead exposure. Additionally, marginalized communities often suffer the most; lead impacts poor Black children at up to twice the rate as poor white and Hispanic children. Yvette Jordan, chair of the NEW Caucus, explained,lead damages children’s brains, which is why our group of public school teachers brought this case to secure safe drinking water for families in Newark.”

Lead piping has been a problem for decades, spanning back to the 1920s when lobbyists successfully built lead standards into local laws across the nation. The problem now: many cities don’t have the money to replace the overwhelming number of lead pipes running beneath their roads. But without a swift solution, communities face developmental issues, health risks, and even death.

Astounding Heights: In 2018 and 2019, lead levels in Newark’s water rose to some of the highest in the nation. In 2018, a water quality report found that lead levels at some sites were above 47 parts per billion, significantly higher than the federal EPA guideline that lead levels should stay below 15 parts per billion. The culprit was corroded household plumbing. 

To the city’s credit, Newark worked quickly to begin replacing pipes and has so far replaced 17,000 out of approximately 19,000 lead service lines. City workers replaced piping throughout the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, managing to replace up to 50 lines per day. The replacements are scheduled to be completed by the end of spring 2021. 

Making Amends: But much like residents of other lead-plagued cities, Newark’s residents need more than just new pipes. They need to re-establish trust with their city. According to the settlement not only will the city be required to finish the replacements at no cost to residents, but it must also provide free drinking water lead testing kits and water filters to residents. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) will also be launching a web page for Newark water system updates. 

Advocates hope that Newark’s aggressive replacement strategy and cooperation with the terms of the settlement can serve as a model for other major cities like Chicago, that are struggling to replace lead piping. “Newark’s aggressive lead service line replacement program, at no direct cost to residents, could serve as a model for the nation once it is completed,” said Erik D. Olson, NRDC’s Senior Strategic Director for Health. 


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