In light of lead, Newark mayor calls for N.J. water infrastructure overhaul

Laura Herzog, NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

During Newark Mayor Ras Baraka's second State of the City address Tuesday night, he addressed the city's schools' water crisis, saying that he wanted a permanent improvement to the city's infrastructure, not "just" filters.

"Our students' health is in jeopardy. There is nothing wrong with Newark's water, but there is something wrong with our infrastructure. It is old," Baraka said. "We don't want to send our children bottled water for the next 20 years, and we don't just want filters on water-use sights."

He also thanked those who had donated water bottles and encouraged the state legislature to support an assembly bill that could spur improvement to the state's water infrastructure.

Baraka was responding to recent news that nearly half of Newark schools have been using water contaminated with dangerous levels of lead.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, even low levels of lead in children's blood can impact academic achievement, and those detrimental effects cannot be corrected.

The upsetting information about some Newark schools' water came after recent annual district testing found elevated levels of lead in the schools' drinking water, according to officials. Newark told the Department of Environmental Protection March 7, the DEP said, and a joint announcement was issued two days later. Thirty Newark school buildings are currently using bottled water, officials have since announced.

Baraka gave his speech March 15 at 6 p.m. at the the New Jersey Performing Arts Center's Victoria Theatre.

The mayor said that several organizations have supplied bottled water to Newark, and he thanked them, but said it was not enough.

Still, as in his and other officials' past statements on the issue, which sought to ease local health concerns, Baraka also said children he spoke to were "upbeat," saying that they are at least drinking more bottled water than ever.

"They were more interested in how to solve these problems than scaring each other about them," he said.

He also echoed the warnings of environmental advocates, who say that Newark's issue reflects the state's larger lead contamination problems.

Following attention given to the water issues in Flint, Michigan, New Jersey advocates have asked for a renewed focus on the lead in the water across the state.

In New Jersey, 11 cities and two counties, including Newark, had a higher percentage of children with elevated lead levels than Flint in 2015, according to an analysis of New Jersey Department of Health statistics by Isles, Inc., a community development organization based in Trenton.

"We have a serious problem in our country and in this state in particular. Fourteen years ago, lead was found in the Camden school system and the schools are still using bottled water to this day," Baraka said. "We have allowed austerity, small government, regressive tax reforms, failure to invest in or infrastructure, mainly our cities where black and brown children are the majority, to be put in harm's way."

According to Baraka, Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle's (D-Bergen) bill, A2281, allows consumers to turn in their plastic bottles to get a 10-cent deposit back, or to offer the money to be used for statewide water infrastructure.

Or, he said, New Jersey could put a "5-cent tax" on all plastic bags and bottles sold in New Jersey, to be put toward a fund to improve the water infrastructure.

On Wednesday morning, after a press conference on wage inequality, Baraka told reporters that 17,000 students and their parents from the 30 impacted schools have been told that "they are eligible to come (to the local health department) and get tested."

"The press has been running around saying that we are going to test 17,000 kids. We have just opened it up to all the parents... What we're saying is 'we have a health department. It's open,'" he said, adding that there was no reason for hysteria or panic. "We're erring on the side of caution and telling parents 'if you feel the need to get tested, you can.'"

But, he added, "we don't know if they're affected by it," and he said no child had come forward with lead poisoning as a result of the school finding.

The mayor said that because the state has controlled Newark's schools for the past 20 years, it was unclear how long lead has been an issue in the water.

Baraka, a former Newark principal, said that he didn't even know that there was a lead filtration system for water when he was in the schools.

"It goes back to why we need control of our schools," he said.