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People leave a recreation center after receiving free bottled water on August 13, 2019 in Newark, New Jersey. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Water Rights Group Calls on Newark Officials to Resist Privatization of City's Water Supply Amid Lead Crisis

"While city and state officials must respond to the current crisis with urgency, they must also protect their water system from predatory corporate operators."

Julia Conley

Pointing to the public health crisis that ensued in Flint, Michigan after the city turned over control of its water to the state, water rights advocates called on leaders in Newark, New Jersey to retain their authority over the city's water as they confront their own lead crisis.

Reports of lead levels well above the EPA's safety standard of 15 parts per billion surfaced earlier this month, prompting Newark city officials to distribute bottled water to residents.

"The lead crisis in Flint was precipitated by a state takeover of the water utility, so it cannot be considered a remedy for Newark's problems. The state should not take control away from the city's democratically elected officials." —Mary Grant, Food & Water WatchState Assemblyman Jamel Holley on Wednesday called on Newark Mayor Ras Baraka to declare a state of emergency and hand over control of the water supply to New Jersey's government, but critics quickly urged the city to consider the crisis in Flint, which exposed thousands of people to toxic levels of lead.

Flint's lead crisis was traced to the city's use of the Flint River for its drinking water to save money—a decision made after the city was put under state control in a receivership due to debt. The city's contract with Veolia, the largest private water supplier in the world, also caused "Flint’s lead poisoning problem to continue and worsen" through the company's "negligence and fraud," according to a lawsuit filed by the Michigan attorney general in 2016.

Giving control to an outside entity could soon give way to privatization of Newark's water, which could have ramifications for residents long after the lead crisis is brought under control.

"The lead crisis in Flint was precipitated by a state takeover of the water utility, so it cannot be considered a remedy for Newark's problems," said Mary Grant, director of the Water-for-All program at Food & Water Watch. "The state should not take control away from the city's democratically elected officials."

Baraka responded to Holley with a clear rejection of the proposal, saying, "The city of Newark is not interested in turning over our water source to any outside entity."

The current water crisis reportedly resulted from the 39,000 filters officials distributed throughout the community following tests in 2017 that showed high lead levels. The filters were meant to be a stop-gap measure until the city could replace 18,000 lead pipes which caused the neurotoxin to leak into the water supply, but more recent tests suggested the filters had failed.

The very existence of the crisis reveals that privatizing the water supply, which could quickly result from turning it over the state control, would harm residents, said Food & Water Watch.

"One needs only to look at neighboring communities in New Jersey to see that private companies like Suez also struggle with replacing dangerous lead pipes," said Grant. "And privatization would have the added burden of raising water rates for Newark residents for decades to come. While city and state officials must respond to the current crisis with urgency, they must also protect their water system from predatory corporate operators."

Instead of looking for alternatives to the city's management of its own resources, Food & Water Watch said, officials should join the group in calling for the passage of a federal law to guarantee safe drinking water to all Americans.

The WATER Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity, and Reliability) Act, proposed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.), would repair water infrastructure across the country.

"Ultimately, a federal solution like the WATER Act would give Newark the resources needed to address the real issue: lead service lines," said Grant. "Renewed federal support can help communities across the country replace these pipes and update infrastructure to give all Americans access to safe, clean drinking water.”

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