Flint, Newark, and the Persistent Crisis of Lead in Water

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New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka issued a joint statement Monday, calling on federal officials to help. “We take this very seriously,” they said. “We want to be out ahead of this.”

Who’s Next?

While Newark currently holds the dubious moniker of “the next Flint,” advocates say another city is in the running for the title: Pittsburgh. Lead concerns in the Steel City have been bubbling up for years now, culminating with a major lawsuit brought against the city by Pittsburgh United and the NRDC that was settled earlier this year.

In 2014, the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority changed which chemicals they use in the public water pipes. (Chemicals can interact with the lead pipes in different ways, and in some cases cause corrosion of lead pipes.) By 2016, the number of resident requests for water testing had risen significantly, according to local media. The problem wasn’t publicly acknowledged until 2017, when the city made a plan to distribute water filters to some residents. (That part took through 2018.)

In February 2019, the NRDC and Pittsburgh United settled their lawsuit against the city. The terms: The city agreed to replace thousands of lead pipes, provide all low-income residents with free water filters, and to prioritize action for homes where children live. Lead levels still exceed the federal standard, but have been falling over this past year.

“The time lag is extremely serious—and it has a real impact on not only the health of families, but also a huge psychological impact once they find out,” said Dimple Chaudhary, an NRDC attorney and lead counsel in cases against both Flint and Pittsburgh. “I’ve spoken to mothers who are absolutely devastated when they find out they may have fed their baby lead-tainted formula.”

A Familiar Pattern

So why do these lead problems take so long for cities to acknowledge?

Chaudhary, who is advising on the NRDC and Newark Education Workers Caucus’ lawsuit against Newark filed in early 2019, says she sees a pattern with lead contamination crises. First, community members suspect there is a problem, but may not have access to all the related information due to a lack of transparency by public officials. As residents advocate their case to city officials, weak regulations, poorly presented data, and low political will can lead to belated city acknowledgment of the problem. And even when both residents and city officials agree that something must be done, finding and implementing a solution can be chaotic.

“You have confusion about the state of the water, you have mixed messages about what people should do, and then if things go well, you may have a court or part of the government step in and try to fix it,” she said. “But you’ll see in a lot of cases that the damage has already been done, both to people’s health and the public trust.”

Experts agree that issues with collecting and accessing data are a big part of the problem. It starts with weak regulations: The EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule, part of the Safe Drinking Water Act, only requires cities to test for the two metals every three years. And officials are only required to sample about 10 percent of residences. And even that limited data can be hard to access.

“There are technical limitations in place that seem designed to frustrate access to the data,” said Laura Pangallozzi, a visiting professor of geography at Binghamton University. She explained that the publicly available data sets on the EPA website are hard to use without programming skills. This can prevent people (even scientists) from being able to look at lead levels in drinking water nationally to identify outliers. And, according to Pangallozzi, some states don’t report their data at all.

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