Newark Mayor Ras Baraka Promises City Is Working on Solution to Water Crisis

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka Promises City Is Working on Solution to Water Crisis

Newark, New Jersey, city officials recently announced thousands of water filters handed out to residents have significantly reduced lead in drinking water to safe levels. Lead contamination has plagued the city for years, spiking even higher in 2019. Over the summer, the Natural Resources Defense Council filed a lawsuit against Newark, accusing it of violating federal safe drinking water laws. The crisis came to a head last month following revelations that water filters distributed to residents may not have been effective. Meanwhile, New Jersey officials have signed off on a $120 million bond with Essex County to fast-track the replacement of thousands of contaminated pipes in the city in less than three years. Tomorrow, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka will hold a State of the Water Town Hall meeting. Mayor Baraka joins us at the Democracy Now! studio.

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, we end today’s show with the water crisis in Newark, New Jersey, where city officials recently announced thousands of water filters handed out to residents have significantly reduced lead in drinking water to safe levels. Lead contamination has plagued the city for years. In 2017, more than 13% of New Jersey children had elevated lead levels in Newark, despite just 3.8% of the state’s children living there. But lead levels spiked even higher in 2019. Over the summer, the Natural Resources Defense Council filed a lawsuit against Newark, accusing it of violating federal safe drinking water laws.

The crisis came to a head last month following revelations that water filters distributed to residents may not have been effective. In August, the Environmental Protection Agency ordered Newark officials to distribute bottled water to 15,000 residents, saying water filters did not fully shield thousands of homes from lead exposure. Newark residents waited in line for hours to receive their water. The city then stopped handing out the bottles after discovering many of them had exceeded their best-by date.

Last week, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka reassured residents the water filters are now working and removing lead below the federal action level.

MAYOR RAS BARAKA: I am happy not only for the hundreds of thousands of residents of the city or the 18,000 homes that are affected or the 14,000 in Pequannock that are affected by this. I’m happy because the filter that I use in my home may also be working. So, it is good news that 97% of those filters work upon coming out of tap, no matter what, and 99% if you flush the water.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, New Jersey officials have signed off on a $120 million bond with Essex County to fast-track the replacement of thousands of contaminated pipes in the city in the next two years to 30 months. New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said the state would spend a million dollars on a community assistance program to help Newark residents install water filters in their homes and collect water samples for additional testing.

But New Jersey’s political leaders are facing mounting criticism for their handling of the water crisis. Advocates say the city downplayed the severity of the problem for years and has been slow on solutions, comparing Newark’s water crisis to Flint, Michigan. Newark is the largest city in New Jersey, with nearly 300,000 residents. Its water crisis primarily affects its low-income and black community. Tomorrow — that’s Wednesday — Newark Mayor Ras Baraka will hold a State of the Water Town Hall meeting.

Well, for more, we are joined by Mayor Ras Baraka. He was born and raised in Newark, represented the city’s South Ward from 2010 until his election as mayor. Mayor Baraka is a longtime educator, credited with turning around Newark’s Central High School as principal from 2007 to 2014. His father, the late Amiri Baraka, was a global activist and noted poet.

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us.

MAYOR RAS BARAKA: Glad to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s get right to it.

MAYOR RAS BARAKA: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: There were lead excesses two years ago and every quarter since. The concern is that you stated that the water was safe, when your data clearly showed it wasn’t. It may have been clean at the source, but when the residents drank it, it wasn’t. Why the reassurances? Why did you put on the city website the water is safe to drink?

MAYOR RAS BARAKA: Well, that has been the story that people have been using since the beginning. I think it’s quite — it’s a little disingenuous, because it stops there. But if you read the entire statement, it says — not only it begins with that, but it ends with, “If you have a lead service line, then you have a problem. And you should call this number, or you should get on the website and find out if, in fact, you have a lead service line.” So, what’s been happening is that people have been putting out this story that we’re saying the water is safe, period, point blank, without reading the rest of it. And residents do have the rest of that.

And it doesn’t account for the fact that, based on the Lead and Copper Rule, we sent the notice home to every resident in the city that said we had lead exceedances. Nobody would know we had lead exceedances except that we tested the water and reported it. So it doesn’t make any sense for us to put out one thing and then say something absolutely different later.

It’s also important to understand that everybody in the city does not have this problem. And it’s important for us to make a distinction between those folks who do not live in those 14,000 homes that actually have the lead service lines and those who do not [sic] live in those homes. What has been happening is that has been blurred, I think purposefully and deliberately blurred, so that people in the city can believe that every time they turn on the water, there’s lead coming out of it. And that’s just absolutely false. It’s not true. I mean, people who live next door to me don’t have the problem.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: When you say the 14,000 homes, what’s that in comparison to the overall number of homes in the city?

MAYOR RAS BARAKA: It’s about 25% of the homes, the residences, the big buildings. And this characterization that, you know, the class of the people — most of these homeowners in Newark are middle-class homeowners, for the most part. The big buildings, where you’re talking about projects or other buildings where the very low-income folks live, don’t even have lead service lines. So, you’re talking about an array of different people in the city who have this problem, from many different nationalities and many different classes of folks across the city. Not only that, the people around the city of Newark — Bloomfield, Belleville, Hillside — are a completely different demographic than the city of Newark, altogether.

So, we just have to be clear on what exactly is happening here. And I think it’s been very, very, very convoluted, part of it because, you know, the lack of information, and part of it because we’ve been in this fight with NRDC. And I think that that has really taken our time as opposed to really trying to be clear about what the real problem is.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you — lead problems in drinking water, especially in older cities in the Northeast and the Midwest, is not unusual. There was a history here, even before you became mayor. The previous mayor, Cory Booker —

MAYOR RAS BARAKA: Right.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — who is now running for president —

MAYOR RAS BARAKA: Right.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — there’s issues as to whether he did what he could. Apparently, there was a big corruption scandal in the water agency during his period of time. Six people went to prison. They were as a result, or convicted as a result. What do you sense happened before you became mayor? And also, what did you do, what direct steps did you do, once you got the report —

MAYOR RAS BARAKA: Right.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — about the excess lead levels?

MAYOR RAS BARAKA: Well, I mean, I don’t — I can’t speak on what happened before I got there, because I don’t — you know, I’m not sure. Honestly, I’m not sure of what happened. I do know that there was an organization that was running the Water Department, that we put out when I became the mayor, that we took the water system completely back from.

But, you know, ultimately, the reason that people even know that we have exceedances is because we test our own water. We test it and report it to the NJDEP. The minute the EPA told us that our corrosion control was in fact not working, we began giving out 39,000 filters, that we paid for, by the way, most of them. The first exceedance we got in 2017 was about 11 or 12 homes out of 100. We began to go to those homes and figure out what was going on. So, we get these exceedances. We deal with the homes that have the exceedances, until we can find out what the actual problem is.

We hired a firm to come in and look — CDM Smith, to come in and look at our water systems, who told us that the water system was fine, that they believe it may be the corrosion control. We had to then send it to the EPA, and they confirmed what CDM Smith said, that it was in fact the corrosion control inhibitor. And we began giving out filters from that.

But even when we got our first exceedance, we lobbied the state to be able to get them to allow us to change people’s lead service lines, because, people forget, the lead service line belongs to the homeowner. And the state would not allow us to change peoples’s lead service lines with public money, so we had to get the Legislature to change the law, which is what we were working on in 2017, to allow us to be able to change people’s lines. And then they wanted us to change the people’s lines and then charge them for it, right? Which I thought was completely ridiculous — we change the lines, and then we’re going to charge the people for doing that. So, we had to fight and say we didn’t want to do that, as well. So, they allowed us to pay 90% and the homeowner to pay 10%. But with the new money, it allows us to pay for the whole thing and kind of bypass or disregard what the state policy is around making homeowners pay for it. So, we’re able to do that for every resident, even those who have lead service lines that are not affected.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And when you say corrosion inhibitor, I don’t know if people understand that, basically, the lead pipes in many of these systems are decomposing, so that some water systems put in chemicals —

MAYOR RAS BARAKA: All water systems do.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: All water systems put in chemicals that basically inhibit the continued corrosion, but then that there were problems in terms of other chemicals that were added to the water that reduced the ability of this inhibitor to work?

MAYOR RAS BARAKA: Right, yeah. That’s what people are saying. I mean, they don’t — there’s no real, like, evidence of it. You know, this is a hypothesis that folks are coming up with, and I think that that needs to be studied, as well — when did it happen and how and why — so other people will, because the sodium silicate we used is still on the EPA’s website as something that you should use to inhibit corrosion from lead pipes into your water. It’s still there, but no one knows why, definitively, it stopped working. And I think that that does need to be studied, and get off of the kind of what we’re guessing about, so we can define what actually is the problem itself, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Mayor, last month we talked to Yvette Jordan, a teacher at Central High, where you were a principal before her. She’s a resident of Newark’s South Ward. She commented on how you, Mayor Ras Baraka, have handled the Newark water crisis.

YVETTE JORDAN: I think it’s extremely important understanding who he is in our community. And he, first and foremost, is an activist. He was born and raised in Newark. He came back as a teacher, as an administrator, and was so revered in terms of what he was doing in terms of young people, in terms of those who are really in need.

So, when he was approached with this, and he said, “No, everything is fine,” really, it was almost a smack in the face of so many of us who supported him. So, my husband and I even had him in our yard when he was campaigning, and invited others over so he would come and share his ideas. So, he’s somebody I supported, and in many ways I still support; however, he really defied our public trust. And that hurt.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s the guest, that — Yvette Jordan. Will you meet with NEW Caucus or the NRDC or activists with the Newark Water Coalition to talk about the crisis?

MAYOR RAS BARAKA: I’ve never said I wouldn’t meet with any of them. None of them ever tried to meet with me. The NRDC is like this huge behemoth, very petty bourgeois, liberal organization, who comes into our city and tells us that they want us to sign an MOU so they can oversee our water.

AMY GOODMAN: A memo of understanding, MOU, yeah.

MAYOR RAS BARAKA: Yeah, a memorandum, yeah, of understanding, so we could — so they could oversee our water system. Andrea Adebowale — may she rest in peace — said, “No, we have our own oversight.”

You know, basically, if they wanted to give us best practices, I don’t think taking us to court and suing us would be the best way to do that. I mean, they could have knocked on the door and said, like any other constituent, and said, “Mayor, we would like to meet and have a discussion about the water issue and how it’s being handled or what we think would be the best way to do it.” So, now they’re saying we’re in court, which, the first part of it, we actually won, because they were trying to make us say that the entire water system was affected, and that in fact is not the case, which is why we were going back and forth.

And what this young lady is saying on the television, I never told anybody that the water was fine altogether. I said that it was fine unless you have a lead service line, which is, in fact, the truth. Right? Unless you have a lead service line.

AMY GOODMAN: And how do you know if you do?

MAYOR RAS BARAKA: Well, on the same document, it says, “Call the Water Department, have your water tested.” We’ve been testing water, testing children for years, right? So, you can find out. Or, there’s a website. You go to NewarkLeadServiceLine.com. You can type in your address. If you have a lead service line, your address pops up. You know, residents have been doing that for the last year and a half.

AMY GOODMAN: A lot of people are renters. The vast majority are renters, is that right?

MAYOR RAS BARAKA: Yeah. And they can —

AMY GOODMAN: In Newark.

MAYOR RAS BARAKA: Absolutely. And they still could type in.

AMY GOODMAN: And how do you get the owners to participate in this?

MAYOR RAS BARAKA: Well, we’ve been going door to door.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you have an issue with landlords?

MAYOR RAS BARAKA: We do have an issue with landlords. We’ve been going door to door. We have about 6,000 signatures that allow us to change people’s lead service lines now, because the homeowner has to give us permission. But locally, we’ve passed in a law, which they’re going to vote on the final passage of it today, which allows us to go on people’s property and change their lead service lines without their permission. So, this would — that takes care of the maybe 75% of the renters that’s in the city who do not have a landlord who can come and sign a piece of paper for them, right? But they can still type their address in and find out if that building or home that they live in actually has a lead service line.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Mayor, you’ve also come under criticism by some press accounts — I think somewhat unfairly — that you appointed somebody to be in charge of the water system —

MAYOR RAS BARAKA: Yeah.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — who had had a previous criminal conviction for drugs and who doesn’t have the normal training to be in charge of a water system of this size.

MAYOR RAS BARAKA: Right, yeah.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Your response to that? Because, obviously, someone having been convicted of a crime in the past doesn’t necessarily exclude them from ever having any kind of a decent job.

MAYOR RAS BARAKA: I call that the error of omission. In that same interview, Kareem Adeem pointed out seven different licenses that he has that qualifies him to operate a water system— licensed water manager, licensed sewer operator, sits on the state’s lead and copper board, all these other kind of things outlined. But he was the second in charge of the Water Department under the previous water director, who had passed away in the middle of this. She thought much of him to give him that title as the superintendent. I didn’t fire him or dismiss him during that time; I allowed him to continue dealing with this process. I thought he was doing a great job.

And, you know, I didn’t look at his criminal record as a decider of whether I was going to replace him in the middle of this crisis. You know, based on what he was doing and his knowledge of what was happening, we decided to keep him on. So I didn’t go out in the street and find him; he was already employed, and he was doing a great job. And I’m glad he’s there, in fact. And if he keeps doing this, he will become the director.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to read from a letter —

MAYOR RAS BARAKA: Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: — Democratic Assemblyman Jamel Holley wrote to you and —

MAYOR RAS BARAKA: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: — New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy in August. Holley’s legislative district, Roselle, neighbors Newark. In the letter, he wrote, quote, “I am pleading and suggesting to you as the Governor of this great State that a State of Emergency be called. This request comes on the backs of each human being in New Jersey that fears government has not appeared to show protection to them, nor has been transparent in this process that we together now face.” What about calling a state of the emergency, and what would that mean?

MAYOR RAS BARAKA: Well, the only thing a state of emergency would have done at that point is probably try to get us money, that we weren’t sure we were going to get, from the federal government. We’re still waiting for money for Sandy now, to get these homes fixed.

AMY GOODMAN: For Hurricane Sandy.

MAYOR RAS BARAKA: For Hurricane Sandy, right. So, at the end of the day, particularly with the government in D.C., we wasn’t sure what was going to happen with that. Declaring a state of emergency really didn’t mean anything to us in the city of Newark. We were giving out water, we were giving out filters for a year and a half.

We raised our own money, our own $120 million. We are going to announce today that we just, you know, settled a deal with the Port Authority, that long-standing fight with the Port Authority, allowed us to raise an additional $155 million to pay the debt service that we’re going to use it for. That’s what we’re going to use the money for, to pay some of the debt service down on the $120 million that we borrowed.

But, to me, I think that that was — you know, since the beginning of this, people have been using this as an opportunity, even grandstanding, to some instances, right? My head has been down, trying to figure out how to solve this problem from the very beginning. And that’s what we’ve been doing.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what about the federal government, the Trump administration? What’s been their policy toward you since this crisis emerged?

MAYOR RAS BARAKA: There has been none. I mean, there is no direct relationship. Nobody’s offered us anything.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you asked for federal relief?

MAYOR RAS BARAKA: Sure, sure. We wrote a letter to the White House a year and a half ago asking for assistance and help in infrastructure, which is what we’re doing now.

AMY GOODMAN: A lot of money going to build a wall on the border.

MAYOR RAS BARAKA: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: Your thoughts?

MAYOR RAS BARAKA: Well, we should be using that for infrastructure, particularly around this water issue. I mean, this is hundreds of millions of dollars, billions across the country. I mean, Newark is not the only — there are 70 cities in the state of New Jersey that are affected by this, in all 21 counties.

AMY GOODMAN: The New Jersey governor has mentioned supporting a millionaire’s tax. Do you think this should be used to address infrastructure? Do you support this?

MAYOR RAS BARAKA: I absolutely support the millionaire’s tax. It should be used to address a whole bunch of things, but this is one of them, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re holding a State of the Water Town Hall on Wednesday. Where is it being held? And what do you expect to come from that?

MAYOR RAS BARAKA: At the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. I think that — you know, we want to do this, want to update everybody on where we are, and to do — talk about some of the things that people have on their mind, really address some of these things that I think have been unfair or just straight-out not true. I think there’s a lot of misinformation out on the street, and we just need to address it. And the more town halls we’ve done — we’ve done a series of them. We’ve been doing them for at least two years now on this issue. You know, the more contact we come in with people, the clearer they become, and they leave with a different sense of what’s happening in their mind.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Ras Baraka, we want to thank you for being with us, mayor of Newark, New Jersey, elected May 2014.

Juan González will be speaking this Thursday, October 3rd, at the 60th anniversary of Claridad in San Juan, Puerto Rico. For details, visit our website at democracynow.org.

I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, for another edition of Democracy Now!