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Officials investigate lead water crisis in Newark schools

Glenn Townes | 3/21/2016, 12:09 p.m.
Former Newark Mayor Cory Booker said the current lead crisis in the city of Newark is not an anomaly and ...
Thirty Newark schools tested positive for high levels of lead in the drinking water. Pictured is Newark Public Schools headquarters. Wikipedia photo

Former Newark Mayor Cory Booker said the current lead crisis in the city of Newark is not an anomaly and the issue was a frequent occurrence before, during and after his tenure as mayor of the Brick City.

In an interview this week with media, Booker said documents released earlier this month clearly indicate that Newark Public School (NPS) officials have been testing the district's water system for lead contamination stretching back to 2004 and well aware regarding the possible lead contamination in the drinking water. However, the severity and pervasiveness of the matter wasn't made public until recently, when thirty Newark schools tested positive for high levels of lead in the drinking water.

In a media statement following the disclosure of the on-going issue regarding the possible toxic water, NPS officials said, “Past documentation and facilities staff have both articulated that the district worked in conjunction or in consultation with the Federal EPA in the early 2000s....it appears that previous staff felt comforted by their conversations that the protocols they were putting in place complied with federal guidance at the time. We continue to conduct a comprehensive review of all past practices in this area.”

The debacle surrounding unsafe drinking water in mostly minority communities gained national headlines came to a head in January when state and government officials declared the city of Flint, MI in a state of emergency due to contaminated drinking water. President Barack Obama issued an immediate investigation into why thousands of residents of the mostly African American city had been subjected to drinking lead contaminated water for several years.

In Newark, Mayor Ras Baraka released a statement regarding the situation and blamed the Brick City water problems on others, including the former Booker administration. “If tests for lead have been conducted since 2004, it is obvious that the state controlled Newark public school system has known about the lead problems for at least 12 years if not more,” he said. Baraka added that the lead contamination is not affecting the city's drinking water, and most likely is the result of antiquated and outdated infrastructure in the schools.

However, Booker countered the notion that his administration was remiss in addressing the issue of lead poisoning. “I battled the issue of lead paint and lead poisoning during my administration,” Booker said. For example, in 2007, Booker secured a $4 million grant from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to clean up hundreds of dangerous and potentially lethal lead-based paint hazards from lower income homes. “I obtained federal funding to help expunge environmental toxicity from our community,” Booker said.

NPS began voluntary health screenings for students in the affected lead contaminated schools to ensure no one becomes ill. More Newark schools will be tested this week. Children who ingest of in some cases inhale lead-based products suffer learning disabilities reduced height, weight and developmental delays. In extreme cases, anemia, convulsions and death may result.