NEWARK, N.J. — Donnette Goodluck tried all day to pick up the free bottled water the city was distributing as officials addressed a growing lead contamination crisis.
When she first arrived at Boylan Street Recreation Center last Tuesday at 10:30 a.m., the line wrapped around the block; Goodluck and others were told to come back at 1 p.m. At 1 p.m., she was instructed to come back two hours later. Uncertain she could find a neighbor to watch the six children she babysits, she gave up.
“Two free cases to do everything — to drink, to cook. It won’t last me that long, but it’s not cheap for me to keep buying water myself,” said Goodluck, 52.
On Goodluck’s stretch of Norwood Street in the city’s West Ward section, residents say the water crisis now gripping Newark began long before officials agreed to distribute free bottled water last week. The city’s stopgap measure was taken in response to a scathing letter from the EPA released Aug. 9, which found dangerously high lead levels in sections of the city’s water supply.
It was Newark’s strongest acknowledgment yet of the public health emergency, which predominantly affects the city’s poor and black residents, like those in the West Ward.
One recent evening, this corner of the neighborhood was buzzing with life: Children zoomed up and down the sidewalks of Norwood Street on brightly colored bicycles. Parents, cousins and neighbors sat on the wooden stoops of their multifamily homes, chatting.
But amid the usual bustle were subtle signs of the entrenched problem: Half-full water bottles hung from residents’ back pockets and sat wedged between the spokes of children’s bicycles. The plastic wrap from water cases purchased almost weekly spilled from garbage cans outside nearly every home.
“I only drink the bottled water,” said Thomasine Smith, 73, who relies on her niece to drive her to the store to pick up bottled water every two weeks. “The tap water’s been tasting funny for years.”
Opposite her front door is a constant reminder of the lead problems that have plagued Newark for years. There, a newly built two-family home is identifiable by a metal placard that hangs from its red brick exterior and reads, “CITY OF NEWARK LEAD SAFE HOUSE.”
A week before the EPA’s letter was released, Alika Speight, 38, and her three children moved into the apartment on the second floor of the house. It is one of a handful of homes the city opened a decade ago to temporarily house families whose children showed high levels of lead in blood tests while city workers scrubbed their homes of lead.
Roughly a year ago, at his annual checkup, Speight’s 3-year-old son, Kion, showed elevated levels of lead in his blood. The city agreed to remediate her house.
Finding excess lead in Kion’s blood was jarring, she said. Ever since, she has tried to instill new habits in her children. No baths, just fast showers. No food if it is made with tap water. No drinking water unless it comes from a bottle.
But Speight’s estimate of the number of bottles required to cook and drink far exceeds the two free cases each home can receive from the city every two weeks.
“I’ve been buying 10 to 15 cases for the house every two weeks,” said Speight, who works as a window clerk in a post office in Trenton, New Jersey. “Plus I have to drop off a case or two with their babysitter —”
“She makes us drink the faucet water; she doesn’t give us the bottles!” her 9-year-old daughter, Sanai, said, interrupting.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Speight said, burying her forehead in her hand. “I tell them not to drink it, but they’re kids.”
A known risk for years
For years before Mayor Ras J. Baraka acknowledged the worrisome lead levels, officials knew the city was at a higher risk than most for lead contamination.
In 2009, the city estimated that the rate of children affected by lead poisoning in Newark was three times higher than it was in New Jersey and the rest of the United States, a trend officials attributed to the city’s industrial past and old housing stock.
Then in 2016, the city shut off drinking fountains in 30 schools because it found elevated lead levels in the water. Last fall, as concern spread that lead was also leaching into the tap water in people’s homes, city officials said they would hand out 40,000 water filters.
Despite repeated assurances by city officials, the EPA found the water filters the city provided may not be doing enough to protect its residents’ health.
“At this point I don’t trust this administration at all,” said Rasheeda Scott, 34, on a recent afternoon as she fingered a cigarette on her stoop. “They’ve just denied, denied, denied there was any problem — but look now.”
Scott has bought bottled water for years. The tap water tasted strange, almost milky, she said. “To think we could be like Flint, and we’re such a big city, it’s terrifying,” she added.
The West Ward was one of the areas most directly affected by lead contamination. Not only is it fed by the Pequannock Water Treatment Plant, where some of the issues originated, but the neighborhood’s many older houses have lead plumbing.
City officials have said residents living in these older houses need to rely on bottled water.
“The only thing we can do is buy water,” said Ralph Wright, 82, a retired taxi driver. “I mean I’ve got taxes, water bills, insurances, heating bills. I can’t afford to replace my pipes, too.”
Wright lives in one of the older multifamily homes encased in rotting wooden slats; it sits across from a row of newer, washed-brick townhouses.
The differences in their exteriors speak as much to the residents’ uneven struggle to lurch out of poverty as it does to the economic inequality inherent in the current crisis.
Those in decaying homes tend to be lifelong residents, most of whom cannot afford to rent elsewhere, much less replace their pipes or buy enough bottles of water to cook, clean and drink. Those in the newer houses are mostly younger transplants with steady incomes, who may not need to buy bottled water but can afford to purchase it anyway.
Helping to bridge that divide is a concern all residents seem to share: drugs and crime. Here, many parents work diligently to shield their children from the violence that plays out on streets and in school hallways, which they fear could derail their children’s futures.
Now, they worry, the lead may have been doing that all along, clutching their children in an intractable cycle of poverty.
“All the urban problems you can imagine are happening here — shootings, everything,” said Domonique Berfet, 26, who is raising a 5-year-old son down the street.
“And now the water.”