Newark tells residents to drink bottled water this month, but only after warning from federal officials about lead in tap water

Elaine Younger, 11, and Tahvion Williams, 14, right, load water in their family’s van at the Newark Health Department in Newark, N.J., Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019. Residents began picking up bottled water on Monday, days after elevated lead levels were found in homes where city-issued filters had been distributed months ago as part of an ongoing effort to combat contamination. Seth Wenig/Associated Press

NEWARK, N.J. — In the year after receiving test results showing alarming levels of lead in the city’s drinking water, Mayor Ras Baraka of Newark made a number of unexpected decisions.

He mailed a brochure to all city residents assuring them that “the quality of water meets all federal and state standards.” He declared the water safe and then condemned, in capital letters on the city’s website, “outrageously false statements” to the contrary. And he elevated an official to run the city’s water department who had served four years in prison for conspiring to sell 5 kilograms of cocaine.

The moves were the latest in a long line of questionable actions that have created one of the biggest environmental crises to hit a major American city in recent years. This month, the city told tens of thousands of Newark residents to drink bottled water, but only after receiving a stern warning from federal officials about lead leaching into tap water from aging pipes.

The water emergency has torn at the fabric of Newark, recalling the public health crisis over lead contamination in Flint, Mich., and highlighting the decay of the nation’s infrastructure, particularly in poorer cities.

It has sowed anger, anxiety and confusion among residents, who question whether the city’s negligence has endangered its youngest citizens. More than 13 percent of the children in New Jersey afflicted with elevated lead levels in 2017 were in Newark, which accounted for only 3.8 percent of the state’s children.

The crisis could also cast a shadow over the presidential campaign of Sen. Cory Booker, who served as Newark’s mayor from 2006 to 2013.

In 2013, an agency that Booker had revamped to handle much of the city’s water operations was gutted over a scandal involving kickbacks, no-show contracts and millions of dollars in wasted public funds. Eight officials were later charged in federal indictments, six of whom pleaded guilty.

Some advocacy groups claim that the scandal distracted Newark officials from monitoring the water supply, possibly setting the stage for the current lead crisis.

An investigation by the New York Times, based on dozens of interviews and hundreds of pages of public records, reveals blunders at all levels of government in safeguarding Newark’s water infrastructure. City officials brushed aside warnings and allowed the system to deteriorate, while state and federal regulators often did not intervene forcefully enough to help prevent the crisis.

“There clearly has been a systemic failure,” said Erik Olson, a senior director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group that has sued the city over the lead levels. “Residents of Newark are the ones harmed by the top-to-bottom failures of government.”

In fact, as the crisis has grown in recent weeks, officials have turned on one another, in an apparent effort to shift blame.

In an interview, Baraka defended his performance and lashed out at federal environmental officials, saying they had repeatedly refused to give the city money to pay for new pipes and bottled water.

“We have been getting no love from them, from that place at all,” Baraka said, adding that he was not criticizing the federal scientists on the ground in Newark.

Baraka defended his decision to appoint Kareem Adeem as acting director of the water department in November, overseeing a system that provides water to 400,000 people in the city and surrounding communities. In 2011, Adeem was released from federal prison after serving four years for conspiring to sell 5 kilograms of cocaine, according to court records. Adeem, who worked lower-level jobs in the department before prison, received the $130,000-a-year position but does not have a college degree. He was deputy director of the department before becoming acting director. For his part, Adeem said he and his team were working hard to address the crisis.

Newark, with 285,000 people, is the largest city in New Jersey, but also one of the poorest in the country. It has long struggled with lead contamination, both in the water and from paint in homes. No concerns have been raised about the source of the water — reservoirs in northern New Jersey. The lead has leached into the tap water from 15,000 antiquated service lines that connect water pipes to homes and businesses.

City and state officials have known for years that the infrastructure was a major risk, but they lacked the funding to replace the aging service lines.

So, the city turned to an approved chemical, sodium silicate, that prevents corrosion and the leaching of lead from pipes into water. For more than two decades, it worked as expected, and no tests showed elevated levels of lead. Then in 2016, the chemical seemed to stop working.

Here is what appeared to have happened, according to interviews and public records: The year before, the city had tinkered with the water, increasing its acidity to tamp down on possible carcinogens. But the increased acidity seemed to reduce the effectiveness of the sodium silicate.

Elevated lead levels were found in water in nearly half of the public and charter schools in Newark. City and state officials maintained that findings in the schools were caused largely by internal plumbing and poor maintenance.

In 2017, New Jersey switched its water-testing requirements, forcing some cities to test twice a year for contaminants instead of once every three years. The first test results to show sharply elevated lead levels in Newark were delivered to the city in July 2017 through a letter of “noncompliance” from the state Department of Environmental Protection.

A coalition of national and local groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council, sent a letter to the city demanding more information and urgent measures in response to the results. They were met with public silence.

In January 2018, the second consecutive test results from the state found similar lead levels in Newark’s water, leading to renewed calls from local activists and national groups for transparency and action. But Baraka played down the warnings. In the city’s annual water quality brochure, which is required by federal law to be mailed to residents each year, he wrote that the high lead readings were only in older homes.

“Many of you have heard or read the outrageously false statements about our water but please know that the quality of our water meets all federal and state standards,” the mayor wrote on the first page of the 12-page brochure. Buried on the fifth page, in a single paragraph, was more extensive information about the consecutive tests showing elevated lead levels.

A month later, a consultant from CDM Smith, a company hired by Newark to conduct a study of the water, sent an email to top officials at the water department, including Adeem, stating that the chemical the city had been using for nearly 20 years to prevent leaching appeared to be failing.

By this point, the water had become an election issue. Baraka’s reelection opponent, Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins, said the lead levels showed a failure of leadership.

Baraka dismissed the warnings and rejected comparisons to Flint. He was reelected with an overwhelming majority in June 2018. A month later, the city received its third consecutive letter of noncompliance from the state, saying that for 18 consecutive months, Newark’s water was above the federal action level.

In December, the city hired Mercury Public Affairs, a public relations firm that was also contracted by former Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan during the Flint water crisis. The $225,000 contract was intended to combat the negative publicity over contaminated water.

Booker is promoting his environmental achievements as a pillar of his presidential bid, but his tenure as Newark’s mayor ended with a scandal that the current water crisis has dragged back into public eye.

The Newark Watershed Conservation and Development Corp. was a public-private agency he revamped and stocked with leadership to handle expanded water operations. But several of the agency’s leaders skimmed money and obtained kickbacks, leaving it poorly managed, according to court records and interviews.

“Officials were concerned with taking money, not running a professional water department by hiring chemists and engineers who know how to meet EPA requirements,” said Brendan O’Flaherty, a Columbia University economist who served briefly in Booker’s mayoral administration.

The atmosphere was such that staff members felt they “could do their own thing,” Linda Watkins-Brashear, the agency’s former director, later told investigators. She is now in federal prison, one of eight people charged in the scandal.

Still, critics claimed the scandal likely compromised water operations going forward. Newark officials now say that some water-testing records were lost during this tumultuous period in the city’s water stewardship.

It was around the time that the watershed agency was mired in scandal that acidity levels started increasing, for reasons that remain unclear. Acidity levels were in safe territory until 2015, when a sharp acceleration corroded pipes, leading to lead leaching.

Last October, spurred by alarming test results, officials from city, state and federal agencies moved quickly to try to coordinate a rapid response. Yet that effort soon turned to squabbling and finger pointing.

Newark officials issued an emergency declaration to allow them to purchase and distribute water filters for faucets in homes, according to an internal memorandum. The emergency declaration was never made public.

Then, in May, officials added a new chemical to the water — orthophosphate — that has proved helpful at preventing leaching. The chemical would take roughly six months to be effective.

At the state’s urging, the city began testing in homes to see if the orthophosphate was working its way into the water. As a precaution, the state also asked the city to test, for the first time, whether water filters were removing lead. But the tests revealed two of three filters studied were not properly removing the lead. EPA officials responded by sending a letter on Aug. 9 that threatened penalties “should the state and city not promptly undertake” distribution of bottled water and other actions.

Gov. Philip Murphy and Mayor Baraka then agreed to distribute bottled water, even as their aides began questioning why the EPA had recommended filters that were now in doubt.