Newark’s Water Crisis

Ishir Talapatra

Newark’s water crisis was a reminder of the problems plaguing America’s cities, and a case study of governmental mismanagement. One year later, not much has changed.

The coronavirus pandemic has shaped news coverage in an unprecedented way. Stories of nationwide lockdowns have  dominated headlines. But the issues plaguing society have not gone away. Newark’s water crisis, which came to a boil in 2019, continues to affect the lives of the city’s residents, and tells a compelling story about urban America.

Last year, the United States Environmental Protection Agency ordered the city of Newark to distribute bottled water to its residents after the city discovered its filtration system was not working to full capacity. The problem is not recent - Newark was forced to shut down 30 of its public schools after testing found excessive levels of lead. The National Resources Defense Council has criticized Newark’s water for years now.

Many  residents lined up outside various supply stations were turned back for having already received their quota of bottled water. Each residence (regardless of the number of occupants) is entitled to two cases of 24 half-liter bottles. “It’s crazy”, said an exasperated parent.

Mayor Ras Baraka urged residents not to panic as he dismissed comparisons to Flint, saying they create unnecessary panic. The mayor’s actions, however, have had a direct link to the crisis. In 2018, Baraka appointed Kareem Adeem to run the city’s water department. Serving the 285,000 people of Newark, the water department is typically run by an engineer, who is better suited to understanding the issues that plague urban water supplies. Adeem, shockingly, has no engineering experience, and had previously served jail time for cocaine possession. The city’s government, meanwhile, continued to state that the water supply was safe while contrary claims were deemed “outrageously false”.

How exactly has the water been contaminated? The issue is largely the result of Newark’s ageing water pipes. Lead from the pipes seeps into the clean, drinking water that runs through them. This lead is particularly dangerous for children, as it can cause increased blood pressure and kidney damage as they grow older. These consequences are already visible - Newark accounted for 13% of New Jersey’s tally of children with elevated lead levels, but the city’s children account for just 3% of the state’s child population.

The blame, however, does not lie exclusively on the city’s government. The vast majority of these pipes cannot be replaced by the city - rather, they must be treated by the owners of the houses themselves. 70% of Newark’s residents are renters, and landlords can be difficult to trace. The mayor and city council passed a legislation in 2019 allowing for the city to fix these faulty pipes without permission from landlords - a key step towards ending the crisis.

As 2019 gave way to 2020, though, few improvements have been observed. Newark’s pipes are steadily being fixed, but numerous residences still line up each day to pick up their supply of bottled water. The coronavirus pandemic has further complicated the situation, with the number of supply stations being reduced. A divided city government is yet to formulate a clear, cohesive strategy to end the crisis. But even when all the pipes are fixed, the consequences of the crisis will still be evident. “The damage has been done”, one man said as he waited.