EPA: Newark should provide bottled water due to lead

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) - The governor of New jersey and the mayor of Newark have vowed to provide bottled water to city residents with lead service lines after tests indicate filters may not be protecting them against elevated lead levels.

Gov. Phil Murphy and Mayor Ras Baraka said, however, in a statement Sunday evening that the city and state "will need support and assistance from the federal government" to provide and distribute water to affected residents. And the Democratic leaders said long-term water distribution could affect the city's corrosion control treatment launched in May, since for the system to work properly residents must keep city water flowing through their pipes.

The joint statement came after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said recent tests had shown that drinking water in a few locations was still testing high for lead despite filters, and "out of an abundance of caution" residents should use bottled water for drinking and cooking. An EPA letter to city and state leaders said bottled water should be provided "as soon as possible" and warned that the agency was prepared to take action to ensure protection of public health should the state and city not act.

The city is expanding tests of filtered drinking water to more Newark homes and "is actively working with the filter manufacturer to determine the scope of the situation and identify required corrective action as soon as possible," the mayor and governor said. They said a reduction in lead levels was expected by year's end due to the corrosion control system, with initial tests leaving officials optimistic that the system would eventually provide the protective coating necessary to prevent leaching from lead pipes.

"But to continue these trends, residents must continue to keep city water flowing through their pipes because this is necessary to move the orthophosphate through the system and form a protective coating around the inner lining of the pipes," they said.

NJ.com reported that Baraka told NJ Advance Media earlier Sunday the city would provide bottled water as "a preliminary caution, I just think people want to be cautious about it."

"It's not going to hurt anybody to give out the water," he said. "We are going to do it until we figure out if the issue is the filter."

On Saturday, Baraka said it isn't clear why the filters - which are nationally certified and used across the country - weren't removing lead at expected levels. He urged residents to flush the water for five minutes before using the filters, but didn't mention the EPA's request for bottled water distribution.

The city has been grappling with elevated lead levels in water for nearly three years and has distributed 38,000 filters to residents.

The National Resources Defense Council and an association of city educators earlier filed a federal lawsuit accusing the city of inadequate monitoring and testing of the water system. The group is asking a judge to order the city to give its most vulnerable residents bottled water or expand its filter program, including providing assistance with installation.

The EPA said it isn't clear why the filters don't seem to be working as expected, but said the effectiveness of filters depends on "operator use, water chemistry and the level of the contaminants."

In November, Baraka rejected comparisons between Newark's lead problem and the crisis in Flint, Michigan, saying his administration was taking multiple steps to address the high levels caused by aging lead service lines that serve private residences, some of which are more than 100 years old.