August 21, 2019

New Jersey Progressive Democrats of Union County Call on Union County and Elizabeth Officials to Ensure Local Communities are Protected from Lead and Potential Fallout from Newark Water Crisis.

PARA LEER ESTE COMUNICADO DE PRENSA EN ESPAÑOL, HAGA CLIC AQUÍ.

Elizabeth, NJ — Wednesday, August 21, 2019 Without a doubt, people in communities across the nation are looking at Newark, NJ, and wondering if their community is next. For residents of some Union County municipalities, that question is a probable yes.

“The Newark water crisis is worse for New Jersey and the communities surrounding Newark than we realize,” says Danielle Fienberg, one of the ten Founding Members of New Jersey Progressive Democrats of Union County. Fienberg added, “If we are to believe American-Liberty Water, Elizabeth gets, depending on who you speak with, between 5-10% of our water from Newark. When we inspected the records received from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP) under an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request, in reality, the capacity is up to 50% of our water supply. Based on millions of gallons per day (MGD) flow rates reported in these documents it is likely that Elizabeth receives upwards of forty-percent of its water from the Newark Water system.”

Why is this a problem?  When water with failed corrosion controls comingles with other sources with otherwise functioning corrosion control, the blended water’s corrosion controls can become ineffective. This process of corrosion control ensures that old lead-based pipes installed in our water infrastructure prior to a ban in 1987 (along with various other plumbing components dating from as late as 2014) have a special coating, called a scale, that creates a physical barrier between the lead and the water. This control is what failed in Newark. Based on information available from American-Liberty Water, made public by local and State government sources, and from documents received under OPRA, it is likely that corrosion control measures have failed in Elizabeth, and in other municipalities that receive some or all of their water from the Newark system.

The Beginning: Researching the Problem & The Elizabeth Board of Education Lead Testing Results

“I wasn’t sure what to do with my worries over the water in Elizabeth, but my preliminary research had alarm bells ringing. A mutual friend introduced me to Jonathan Gibson, an Elizabeth homeowner, activist, and former political candidate. Gibson listened to my concerns and said he would look into it,” stated Fienberg.

Gibson was unsure that there was an issue and while the data suggested that there may be a problem, the extent of it was hard to ascertain. “For me, the first warning sign was the Elizabeth School Board and their published lead tests [1] that Danielle had shown me,” Gibson recounts. He started to discuss this with a neighbor, a former candidate for the Elizabeth Board of Education and inquired if there were any other warning signs. “I was told that there were schools that were giving students bottled water and were possibly using bottled water for cooking and other needs,” says Gibson. The Elizabeth Board of Education had stated publicly that they were not going to retest any school until legally obligated. That, together with the published test results, and the use of bottled water, raised Gibson’s suspicion.

Intent on convincing Gibson of her fears, Fienberg took Gibson to the July 17 Newark Water Coalition public meeting.

Conversation with Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha and Erik Olsen of the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC)

On July 17, 2019, Gibson and Fienberg had an opportunity to meet with and ask questions of Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha of Flint, MI and Erik Olsen, who was representing the NRDC at the Newark Water Coalition community meeting.

Gibson asked Dr. Hanna-Attisha, “With school district tests that were high, in one case 6740ppb, with Elizabeth having a capacity to get fifty-percent of its water from Newark, and records indicating we are getting an average of forty-percent of our water from Newark, should we be worried?” Gibson recounts that Dr. Hanna-Attisha said, “It would make sense that there would be a problem.”

“I wasn't sure there was a problem in Elizabeth,” says Gibson, “but after talking to Dr. Hanna-Attisha, I was convinced Elizabeth likely had a problem.” It was just how sizable the problem could be.

At the same meeting, Fienberg and Gibson looked at a map of Newark and its neighborhoods with an overlay of Newark’s affected water systems attended by Erik Olsen, Senior Director, Health and Food, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program at the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC). Olsen explained to Fienberg and Gibson how the Newark water system is comprised of two reservoirs, the Pequonnock and the Wanaque and how the corrosion controls had definitively failed in the areas serviced by the Pequonnock system. However, due to the blending of water between the Pequonnock, with its failed controls, and the Wanaque, the Newark Water Coalition saw elevated levels in the East Ward/Ironbound district despite the area being serviced predominantly by the Wanaque system.

“My fears were confirmed,” Gibson recounts, “I knew we got about forty-percent of our water from Newark, where these protective systems had failed. But according to the conversations we had with Dr. Hanna-Attisha and Mr. Olsen we learned that comingling the Newark source water with the rest of the water in Elizabeth would likely affect Elizabeth’s water.” The question remains how and how badly Elizabeth and other Union County towns that recieve part of their water from the Newark system are affected.

Information Obtained from New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection

In July, Gibson and Fienberg worked with local attorney CJ Griffin of Pashman Stien to craft an Open Public Records Act request for records regarding the Elizabeth water system, testing sites, and other information that local officials and American-Liberty Water were not providing.

“It was the first OPRA request I had sent to a New Jersey governing body that was answered in full and without challenge,” says Gibson, “it was refreshing to have a government entity do what was right without qualm.” [2]

The first thing noticed when comparing water testing sites from the official sampling list for American-Liberty Water, the unique identifiers only go back a few years. With that, the data can only be analyzed from 2017 to the present.

Fienberg and Gibson noted that site PBCU63, a house in the Elmora neighborhood of Elizabeth, had a lead level of 176ppb in 2018. It has not been retested as required under the Lead and Copper Rule in 2019 by American-Liberty Water.

In 2018, two samples tested higher than the EPA action level of 15ppb in Elizabeth, PBCU63 at 176ppb and PBCU141 at 20ppb. Another, PBCU19, came close at 13ppb. Altogether, 54-homes were sampled in the entirety of the City of Elizabeth. Of those, 22-homes (41% of the total sample) had a detectable level of lead.

On August 13, 2019, the City of Elizabeth posted a notice on the city website. Gibson and Fienberg claim that notice misrepresented the facts to residents. The statement, which Gibson posits was written by American-Liberty Water and not City of Elizabeth officials, claims, “In fact, no lead was detected in any of the samples collected in the City of Elizabeth this year.”

“This is simply a lie,” says Gibson. “Just look at the State of New Jersey’s Drinking Water Watch website where the State makes these test results public.”

Gibson is correct. A cursory look at this year’s test results for lead in Elizabeth on the States' website shows that nine sites had detectable lead levels out of 44-samples. Fienberg says, “To claim that there is no lead detected when in fact lead was detected in twenty-percent of the samples is simply untrue.” [3]

“What the statement should have said is that ‘testing so far this year has not found any samples that exceed the EPA action level of 15ppb,'" states Fienberg, "and, it should have warned the public that regardless of the action level set by the EPA ‘no level of lead is safe’ for human consumption.”

Previous years testing in Elizabeth have seen high levels as well. Every year since 1992 and 1993, where testing results are available, have had levels higher than the EPA action limit (47ppb and 24ppb in 2012, 102ppb and 29ppb in 2011, 28ppb in 2008, and 32ppb, and 15ppb in 2005).

Gibson is questioning what American-Liberty Water is doing. According to Gibson and Fienberg, based on available records and accounts from long-term residents of Elizabeth, the City contracted with American-Liberty Water in the early 1990s. Reviews of the violations for the Elizabeth water system show that there were severe lead violations in both 1992 and 1993, around the time that American-Liberty Water took over the system.

“What I want to know is how, when we have serious violations for lead and other heavy metals from 1988 to 1993 and then, all of a sudden, none? How does that happen? Is it a function of dropping testing sites year over year?” Gibson inquires.

Attempts to Work with the City of Elizabeth

In May of 2019, Fienberg spoke to the Elizabeth City Council about her concerns regarding the water and provided a folder of information to the council. Two weeks later, Fienberg, having not heard from the councilmembers, returned to the Elizabeth Council meeting to ask if anything had been done to address her concerns. She was given the same public reports that American-Liberty Water provides on their website and told there was no problem. They instructed Fienberg to reach out to Mark Colicchio, Health Officer for the City of Elizabeth, if she had more question.

Fienberg spoke with Colicchio, providing the same information, and was told again there were no problems.

On August 14, 2019, Gibson and Fienberg went to visit Colicchio in his office. Having done more research over the course of a month, the data supported that there were red flags with the water worth investigating. Still, they hoped that American Liberty Water's affirmations would hold up to scrutiny despite further testing. Colicchio said several times, “Our water company is great, we have had no issues with them.”

Gibson recounts that when pressed for specifics about the contract between the city and American-Liberty Water, Colicchio claimed he did not know and had never seen the contract. Further, when asked pointed questions about the high lead samples in the school district's water, Colicchio said he was not aware of those tests, depite having spoken at an Elizabeth School Board meeting regarding this very issue in August, 2016. 

“As the person Mayor Bollwage’s administration puts forth as the administrations designated employee with regard to public concerns about the water, to only have vague talking point like, ‘we have a great relationship with Liberty’ and ‘we have never had a problem’ and ‘the water is safe and there is no reason not to trust Liberty’ is unacceptable. It's beyond unacceptable when that person, who is charged with answering these questions, is asked for specifics, and has nothing! When given the data, he does not respond beyond the talking points. This sounds like an administration that doesn't want to acknowledge that there might be a problem,” says Gibson.

“It's not like we were saying we wanted to ring the bell loudly, we just wanted to know why there were discrepancies in the publicly available information. It raised questions, and those questions were important enough to raise alarm. After my experiences in Newark, where my son was lead poisoned by the water, I have every right to know if the water here in Elizabeth is safe,” Fienberg says.

Gibson continues, “When the water company seemingly fails to retest homes that are part of their testing program and which show high lead levels year over year, I start to ask the question is American-Liberty Water attempting to skew the data to make the situation look better than it actually is? When the true figure of how much water we are getting from the Newark Water system is blured; when these questions get unanswered or answered by officials simply saying, ‘they have never had a problem with American-Liberty Water;’ or, when the only answer you get is to be told that, in the face of alarming data, you have ‘nothing to worry about’ … well, the only thing I can say is that these defenses sounds a lot like what the officials in Flint, Chicago, Washington, DC, and now Newark all said before the truth came out. The government and elected officials are incentivized by a corrupt system to ignore the problem and only do something when they absolutely have to.”

According to an EPA presentation authored by Natalie Cannon US EPA Region 8, and available online, a Tier 1 site is "a single family structure[] that contains copper pipes with lead solder installed between 1983 and 1988, or contain lead pipes and/or serviced by a lead service line." It is also worth noting that American-Liberty Water is testing multi-family homes outside of this parameter as defined by this EPA document since a large quantity of the tested sites are multi-family homes. [4]

Conversation with Miguel Del Toral & the EPA

On August 19, 2019, Miguel Del Toral, Regulations Manager at the United States Environmental Protection Agency Region 5, returned Fienberg’s phone call. Del Toral spoke with Fienberg at length and confirmed that the concerns Fienberg and Gibson have regarding the water are accurately rooted in science. In short, what we know is concerning. Del Toral put Fienberg and Gibson in touch with the local EPA Region 2 officials and discussions between Fienberg, Gibson, and the EPA are continuing.

Elizabeth and Union County Residents Served by American or American-Liberty Water that Purchase Water from the Newark Water System Deserve to Know if Their Water is Safe

New Jersey Progressive Democrats of New Jersey call on Elizabeth, Union County, and the State of New Jersey’s governments to do mass-independent testing of the Elizabeth municipal system to ensure public safety.

“Our children should not be the canaries in the coal mine. Their blood lead levels should not be the red flag; they should not replace proactive public policy meant to protect the most vulnerable members of our community,” says Fienberg.

###

New Jersey Progressive Democrats of Union County (NJPD-UC) is a New Jersey non-profit organization which advocates for a progressive policy agenda and for transparency and ethics in government.

For more information, press only:

Jonathan Lee Gibson
Founding Member, NJPD-UC
jonathan@njprogressives.com

Danielle Fienberg
Founding Member, NJPD-UC
danielle@njprogressives.com

For more information on New Jersey Progressive Democrats of Union County:

Website: union.njprogresssives.com
Phone: 908.490.6369

 

Sources Cited:

[1] For the EPS School District test results see: https://www.epsnj.org/domain/2999

[2] For copies of the records obtained via OPRA from the NJ DEP please email jonathan@njprogressives.com with your request.

[3] For records of the tests done in the Elizabeth water system see: https://www9.state.nj.us/DEP_WaterWatch_public/JSP/WSDetail.jsp?tinwsys=758

[4] Link to EPA presentation with definition of Tier 1 site: https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/documents/LCR_Presentation.pdf

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.