Ras Baraka wasn’t looking for a fight.
But the Newark mayor, tired of his city and his leadership being called into question, fired back at the National Resources Defense Council in an interview with ROI-NJ Tuesday afternoon.
Baraka said one of the reasons the NRDC is suing the city over the elevated lead levels in some of its water is because the NRDC wants business, not because of the issue — which he says has been overblown.
And, most emphatically, Baraka said the comparisons the NRDC has made to Flint, Michigan, are inaccurate and irresponsible.
“It’s a sexy story, people are running away with it,” he said. “But it’s not true.
“The reality is the NRDC came to us and they wanted us to sign an MOU (memorandum of understanding) that said that they would have a kind of oversight over the things that we do around the water in the city. We refused to do that.
“We already have oversight. It’s called the NJDEP. We don’t need them. And when we refused to do that, they took us to court and tried to force us to make them have oversight.”
This, Baraka said, has led to a war of words.
“It behooves them to go around and say, ‘This is Flint,’ to say this and that and that we’re not listening to the DEP, but that’s incorrect.
“The EPA filed charges against people in Flint, and said they were out of compliance and they said their oversight was not adequate. Our DEP oversight is more than adequate and we’ve gone above and beyond what they asked us to do. So, there’s no comparison to Flint at all. And they shouldn’t even be raising it.”
Baraka will be the first to admit Newark has a problem with some lead seeping into the water supply. But, he said, it’s an issue that only impacts some residents (granted, it’s 20,000 houses) and that it’s an issue the city has been on top of for some time.
“The source water is fine,” he said. “But in the city, we have old infrastructure, so some of our houses were built with lead service lines prior to 1986, when lead service lines were banned.
“That seeps into the water from the lead service line. There is a chemical that we put in the water, mandated by DEP and EPA. We’ve been using the same one for the past 20 some-odd years and it stopped working recently, so we have to find another one to coat the pipes.”
Baraka said that’s where Newark’s story differs from Flint.
“Flint purposely stopped using corrosion controller inhibitors, ours stopped working,” he said. “They were not following the DEP. We are in compliance with the DEP and the EPA. Everything that we’ve done has been in compliance with the EPA. In fact, we’ve gone above and beyond what they required us to do.
“We’ve given out filters, they didn’t tell us to do that. We asked for a lead service line replacement way before the water study came out. Nobody mandated that we do that. We have been getting the word out as much as we can, so, to make that comparison is just dead wrong and it’s irresponsible.”
Baraka said the issue does not impact the business community at all.
“The good news for the business community is that lead service lines do not go into big buildings,” he said. “Lead service lines go into one-family and two-family homes.
“Big buildings usually have cast iron pipes or something like that, because they have a large volume of water that goes through there.”
And, as for the workers in those big buildings, unless they are moving into some of the city’s older units, they are good, too, Baraka said.
“If you’re living in a multifamily building of six units or more, the lead service line is too small, so you’re not impacted,” he said. “Plus, any new building that’s being built is not using lead.”
Baraka said NRDC’s arguments do not hold up.
“There’s no basis and they know it’s not factual,” he said. “And when you talk to them, they say we’ve done more than what was required.
“They believe that they should be the monitoring agency and we don’t agree with that. We’ve never agreed with it. We have one already. We don’t need them to monitor us. The NJDEP is doing a fine job.”
Baraka said he’s tired of being on the defensive. The battle, he said, is personal.
“I want to fight back,” he said. “I live here. I was born and raised in the city. My family, my nieces and nephews, are here. We’re all a part of this. My house is a house that’s in an affected area. I have to use a filter that I got from the water department, so all this is serious to me.
“They’re making this a different kind of issue, coming in here and saying those things. I think it’s egregious and we can’t let it go unchecked.”
Baraka feels the residents support his actions.
“Our residents have faith in us,” he said. “As a matter of fact, when we were pushing this out, we were getting so much support from community organizations. People are banding together to make sure we get through this problem.
“To come and try to give us a black eye and cause disruption and make people lose faith in the process is terrible. So, we had to respond. We have no other choice but to respond.”