NEWARK, N.J. — A growing crisis over lead contamination in drinking water gripped Newark on Wednesday as tens of thousands of residents were told to drink only bottled water, the culmination of years of neglect that has pushed New Jersey’s largest city to the forefront of an environmental problem afflicting urban areas across the nation.
Urgent new warnings from federal environmental officials about contamination in drinking water from aging lead pipes spread anxiety and fear in some of Newark’s poorest neighborhoods, but the municipal government’s makeshift efforts to set up distribution centers to hand out bottled water were hampered by confusion and frustration.
State and local officials said they were making free water available to 15,000 of the city’s 95,000 households, and hundreds of people waited in long lines in the summer heat to pick up cases of water. But officials had to halt the distribution temporarily after discovering that some of the water exceeded its sell-by date.
The intensifying worry about the safety of Newark’s drinking water has raised comparisons to Flint, Mich., where dangerous levels of lead led to criminal indictments against state and local officials and forced residents to rely on bottled water.
The lead crisis in Newark, a city of 285,000 people, had been brewing for years, but escalated sharply over the weekend after federal officials issued a scathing letter warning about the safety of the drinking water and urging city officials to take more aggressive steps.
Residents who had been reassured for months by city leaders that the problem was being addressed were left reeling.
Newark had long denied that the city had a widespread problem with its drinking water, only to reverse course last fall and give away tens of thousands of water filters. But recent tests have shown that the filters were not properly removing lead.
Like Flint, many of the neighborhoods affected by concerns over the drinking water are predominantly African-American and low income.
On Wednesday, the governor of New Jersey, Philip Murphy, toured one of the water distribution centers, underscoring the severity of the problem.
“It’s a right, not a privilege, to have clean safe water and we are committed to that,” Murphy said.
The state and city want “to get this as right, as fast as we can,” the governor said, calling on federal officials to help. “We take this very seriously. We want to be out ahead of this.”
Standing in long lines, residents expressed anger and fear over how wide-reaching the problem really was. Many said their anxiety over the water adds to the challenges the city already faces — from poverty to drugs.
“We’re ducking bullets, we’re ducking and dodging bullets every day,” said Nafessah Venable as she stood outside a recreation center with her young son. “We can’t even take our kids out to play. Now we’ve got to worry about water? Water is a necessity for life. How can we survive without clean water? It’s tragic, and it’s very mind-boggling to wonder what the future holds in terms of the water system.
Newark’s antiquated plumbing system has long carried a threat of leached lead.
“They were in denial for a long period of time,” said Erik Olson, the senior director for health programs at the National Resources Defense Council, which filed a lawsuit against the state and the city last year, accusing them of violating federal safe drinking water laws.
“It’s been a slow response, but they’re finally coming around to realizing that they do have a serious problem, and that’s a good thing.”
The recreation center was one of four distribution points set up by the city to hand out water. Some people waited an hour to get their allotted two cases.
Adding to the frustration, officials also turned away some people, telling them they were not eligible for free water because they did not live in an area identified as having elevated lead levels.
“When you get up there, they tell you you’ve got to be from a certain area to get the water,” said Leslie Holmon, a Newark grandmother, “but they didn’t tell you that on the news.”
She added, “They’ve got these seniors standing out here for nothing.”
On Friday, the EPA urged officials to provide bottled water to residents with lead pipes as soon as possible.
“We are unable at this time to assure Newark residents that their health is fully protected when drinking tap water filtered through these devices,” the EPA said in a letter, referring to the PUR filters issued by the city.