NEWARK, N.J. — In the year after receiving test results showing alarming levels of lead in the city’s drinking water, Mayor Ras Baraka of Newark made a number of unexpected decisions.
He mailed a brochure to all city residents assuring them that “the quality of water meets all federal and state standards.”
He declared the water safe and then condemned, in capital letters on the city’s website, “outrageously false statements” to the contrary.
And he elevated an official to run the city’s water department who had served four years in prison for conspiring to sell 5 kilograms of cocaine.
The moves were the latest in a long line of questionable actions that have created one of the biggest environmental crises to hit a major American city in recent years. This month, the city told tens of thousands of Newark residents to drink bottled water, but only after receiving a stern warning from federal officials about lead leaching into tap water from aging pipes.
The water emergency has torn at the fabric of Newark, recalling the public health crisis over lead contamination in Flint, Mich., and highlighting the decay of the nation’s infrastructure, particularly in poorer cities.
It has sowed anger, anxiety, and confusion among residents, who question whether the city’s negligence has endangered its youngest citizens. More than 13 percent of the children in New Jersey afflicted with elevated lead levels in 2017 were in Newark, which accounted for only 3.8 percent of the state’s children.
The crisis could also cast a shadow over the presidential campaign of Senator Cory Booker, who served as Newark’s mayor from 2006 to 2013.
In 2013, an agency that Booker had revamped to handle much of the city’s water operations was gutted over a scandal involving kickbacks, no-show contracts, and millions of dollars in wasted public funds. Eight officials were later charged in federal indictments, six of whom pleaded guilty.
Some advocacy groups claim that the scandal distracted Newark officials from monitoring the water supply, possibly setting the stage for the current lead crisis.
An investigation by The New York Times, based on dozens of interviews and hundreds of pages of public records, reveals blunders at all levels of government in safeguarding Newark’s water infrastructure. City officials brushed aside warnings and allowed the system to deteriorate, while state and federal regulators often did not intervene forcefully enough to help prevent the crisis.
“There clearly has been a systemic failure,” said Erik Olson, a senior director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group that has sued the city over the lead levels. “Residents of Newark are the ones harmed by the top-to-bottom failures of government.”
Baraka defended his performance and lashed out at federal environmental officials, saying they had repeatedly refused to give the city money to pay for new pipes and bottled water.
“We have been getting no love from them, from that place at all,” Baraka said, adding that he was not criticizing the federal scientists on the ground in Newark.
Baraka defended his decision to appoint Kareem Adeem as acting director of the water department in November, overseeing a system that provides water to 400,000 people in the city and surrounding communities.
In 2011, Adeem was released from federal prison after serving four years for conspiring to sell 5 kilograms of cocaine, according to court records.
Adeem, who worked lower-level jobs in the department before prison, received the $130,000-a-year position but does not have a college degree. He was deputy director of the department before becoming acting director.
“His knowledge of this stuff is unparalleled,” Baraka said. “There’s no one else in the city who has the level of information, and I have full confidence that he knows what he’s doing.“
For his part, Adeem said he and his team were working hard to address the crisis.
“Early on in my life, I made some bad choices,” he said. “I got a second chance. And I’m going to take full advantage of my second chance, helping my city that I love.”
Newark, with 285,000 people, is the largest city in New Jersey, but also one of the poorest in the country. It has long struggled with lead contamination, both in the water and from paint in homes.
No concerns have been raised about the source of the water — reservoirs in northern New Jersey. The lead has leached into the tap water from 15,000 antiquated service lines that connect water pipes to homes and businesses.
City and state officials have known for years that the infrastructure was a major risk, but they lacked the funding to replace the aging service lines.
So, the city turned to an approved chemical, sodium silicate, that prevents corrosion and the leaching of lead from pipes into water. For more than two decades, it worked as expected, and no tests showed elevated levels of lead.
Then in 2016, the chemical seemed to stop working.
Here is what appeared to have happened, according to interviews and public records: The year before, the city had tinkered with the water, increasing its acidity to tamp down on possible carcinogens.
But the increased acidity seemed to reduce the effectiveness of the sodium silicate.
Elevated lead levels were found in water in nearly half of the public and charter schools in Newark. City and state officials maintained that findings in the schools were caused largely by internal plumbing and poor maintenance.
Yet beginning in 2017, New Jersey switched its water-testing requirements, forcing some cities to test twice a year for contaminants instead of once every three years.
The first test results to show sharply elevated lead levels in Newark were delivered to the city in July 2017 through a letter of “noncompliance” from the state Department of Environmental Protection.
In January 2018, the second consecutive test results from the state found similar lead levels in Newark’s water, leading to renewed calls from local activists and national groups for transparency and action.
But Baraka played down the warnings.
A month later, a consultant from CDM Smith, a company hired by Newark to conduct a study of the water, sent an e-mail to top officials at the water department, including Adeem, stating that the chemical the city had been using for nearly 20 years to prevent leaching appeared to be failing.