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Bottled Water Distribution Begins In Newark, N.J., After Lead Detected


Flint, Mich., is not the only city with lead in the drinking water. Officials in Newark, N.J., began offering free bottled water this week to about 14,000 households. Last October, the city had distributed filters meant to remove lead from the water, but now tests reveal those filters might not be working. Karen Yi is a reporter for The Star-Ledger in Newark. She's following this story.

Hi, Karen.

KAREN YI: Hi. How's it going?

KELLY: Well, thank you. So when did officials in Newark first learn of lead in the water, first learn that there might be some kind of problem?

YI: So the lead in the water issue began in 2017. That's when the city started to have elevated lead levels in its drinking water. And since then, we've seen consistent levels of lead in the water and even an increase in some of the lead in the water. That's when the problems really began in the city.

KELLY: Although I read that even, like, the year before that, back in 2016, there were some drinking fountains in Newark schools shut down because of questionable lead levels.

YI: Correct. More than 30 schools shut down their drinking water because tests in the schools, which are separate from the tests done in the city, reflected high lead levels. So the schools ended up shutting down drinking water, installing filters and passed out bottled water at the time. So since then, most of the schools - if not all of them, I think - are back online. They're back using the water in the system.

KELLY: OK. So there were signs mounting 2016, 2017. What were city officials saying? Were they telling people in Newark it's fine, go ahead and drink the water?

YI: Initially, the city's messaging was the water is safe to drink. It's not a widespread problem. It wasn't until the National Resources Defense Council got involved and threatened to sue the city over its handling of the problem that we got a little bit more information that this, in fact, was not just a few homes. It was not just 12 homes. It was a widespread problem because there was an issue with how the city was treating its water. And the water treatment was failing, which was causing these old lead pipes to dissolve into the drinking water.

KELLY: OK. They're handing out bottled water. What's the long-term fix? What's the plan?

YI: The city has two long-term fixes. One is eliminating the source of the lead. So the lead in this case is not coming from the source water. It's coming from these old lead pipes. So they're trying to canvass the whole city and replace these lead service lines. They're kind of like garden hose-sized pipes that connect underground water mains to homes. This is a $75 million program that is going to take years to do. So in the meantime, the city is also changing the way it's treating the water. And this is called corrosion control treatment. And so with these new set of chemicals, what they're doing is they're pouring in this feed into the distribution system. And as it flows through the water, it's supposed to create a protective coating inside these lead pipes so that the lead doesn't dissolve into the water. That treatment began in May and will take up to a year to work.

KELLY: So in the meantime, what are people supposed to do - drink the bottled water?

YI: In the meantime, people were supposed to rely on the filters. And now they're going to rely on the bottled water. Everybody's hoping to have a lot more information by the end of the week to figure out how much longer we need to give out this bottled water.

KELLY: And what are people saying? Are they panicked about this? Are they going to get tested for lead levels?

YI: I think people are pretty frustrated at this point just because they keep getting mixed messages. You know, rely on the filters. Now come back for bottled water. And at this point, everyone's concerned about, you know, what have they been drinking? And yesterday, there was, you know, a huge line for residents to pick up bottled water. And they were expressing confusion. They were expressing frustration. And above all, they were worried. They were worried about their health.

KELLY: Yeah. I mean, it all sounds awfully reminiscent of the situation in Flint, Mich., both in terms of problems with the water and in terms of city officials, for years, denying those problems.

YI: Yeah. I mean, some of the comparisons have been made for years, especially at the beginning, when the city was accused of downplaying the issue and saying this was confined to a few homes. You know, residents have made that comparison to me as well because they feel like it's been so long, and they're not really clear what the problem is.

KELLY: That is Karen Yi of The Star-Ledger in Newark.

Thanks for your time.

YI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: August 13, 2019 at 11:00 PM CDT
In a previous version of this report, reporter Karen Yi mistakenly said the lead in Flint's water came from a new water source. In fact, the lead came from existing pipes.