Newark and New Jersey officials reach settlement in yearslong lawsuit over lead contamination of city drinking water

The city of Newark, New Jersey, resolved yearslong litigation Tuesday in connection to its water crisis, in which city drinking water was contaminated with illegally high levels of lead.

Officials from the city and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) reached an agreement with the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Newark Education Workers Caucus, which sued city and state officials in June 2018 for ongoing violations of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, including their failure to address the lead crisis on a timely basis.

A New Jersey federal judge signed an order Tuesday approving the settlement.

Around the time the lawsuit was filed, quality reports published by the city found drinking water in parts of Newark to be unsafe for 18 months. In 2018, according to the city’s water quality report, lead levels at several sites were above 47 parts per billion; federal EPA guidelines say lead levels should fall below 15 parts per billion.

The report said “corrosion of household plumbing” was one source for lead.

The settlement requires the city to replace all lead service lines free of charge to residents, a process the city estimates it will finish early this spring, Mayor Ras Baraka says.

More than 17,000 of Newark’s lead service lines have been replaced already, closing in on the total, just shy of 19,000, according to an NJDEP news release.

City workers continued installing the new service lines during the several months when Newark was under a novel coronavirus stay-at-home order, replacing 40 to 50 lines per day while taking additional safety precautions, Water and Sewer Director Kareem Adeem told reporters in July.

Until the job is complete, the city must continue to provide free drinking water lead testing kits and water filters to residents, according to the agreement.

The NJDEP will also launch a dedicated web page for Newark water system updates such as ongoing tap water and water quality sampling and corrosion control testing in February that will be maintained through at least the end of the year, per the agreement.

“By the grace of God we are near completion of our lead service line replacement program and I am thankful that we were able to identify the issue, do the work, and are able to help make our residents safer,” Baraka said in a statement Tuesday.

The lawsuit against the NJDEP and the city of Newark has been dismissed and as part of the settlement, the advocacy groups cannot bring further actions related to the past city water situation.

The parties did not seek monetary damages in the suit.

Officials with the Natural Resources Defense Council credited the settlement agreement to Newark officials’ “significant progress” in removing the lead pipes.

“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,” the group’s senior strategic director for health, Erik D. Olson, said in a statement.

In October, the federal Environmental Protection Agency awarded the Newark Board of Education a $7.5 million grant to help fund its effort to deal with remaining lead pipes and fixtures in city schools, according to an EPA news release.

The Newark Board of Education detected lead levels in school drinking fountains for years beginning in 2010.

“Modernizing the nation’s aging water infrastructure is vital in ensuring access to clean, safe drinking water and protecting our communities from the dangers of lead exposure. Our administration is committed to confronting this challenge head on and having New Jersey lead the nation in updating critical water infrastructure to benefit all residents and future generations to come,” Gov. Phil Murphy said in a statement.

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