Water crisis in Newark, New Jersey

An interview with educator and activist Yvette Jordan

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Retired Newark educator Betty Maloney sat down with Yvette Jordan, a leader in the fight to get the lead out of the water in their city. These are excerpts from their conversation. The entire interview is available here.

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Betty Maloney — Please tell our readers about what is going on with the water, and how you got involved in this struggle.

Yvette Jordan — The water crisis in Newark is a public health crisis. Lead is leaching into the water. In the reservoir for Newark the water is okay, but when it reaches the taps of residents there is a problem. The problem is lead and other contaminants have leached in.

According to the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) Newark had been exceeding standards for lead in the water since June 2017. In September 2017 they informed our city.

Unfortunately our city was non-responsive. The mayor did nothing.

I and other members of Newark Educators Workers caucus (NEW) were made aware of the problem in February 2018 when the NRDC informed us of the lead exceedances. Two attorneys met with NEW caucus. The attorneys asked if we were aware that Newark has lead in its water. We were shocked. We were told the lead levels rivaled Flint, Michigan. We were stunned.

They said they needed a plaintiff for a federal lawsuit. So we, as educators, and folks who are really concerned about our students, other residents in Newark and their families, felt it was our responsibility to step up. We said say yes. In April 2018 we informed the city of our intent to sue.

The city started then to say everything was fine. The mayor was saying our water is fine, the source water is okay. He omitted the fact that from the source which is in the reservoir to the tap water is different because it’s treated. And since it was not treated properly we have lead. He was omitting all that information and was not informing our residents.

In June 2018, NEW caucus and NRDC filed the lawsuit against the city of Newark and the state of New Jersey.

Betty Maloney (left) and Yvette Jordan (right) chat after a meeting.

Betty Maloney — You have been very visible speaking out on this issue. Why did you decide to put yourself out there?

Yvette Jordan — I am a resident of Newark, I’m a homeowner and I felt it was important for somebody who lived and worked here to actually stand up. I thought it was important for me as a Black woman to step up.

And at the same time I was thinking about writing a book about self-advocacy. I think it’s extremely important for those of us who are in the community to stand up and speak for themselves.

Betty Maloney — Can you share any of the developments about the water in the schools?

Yvette Jordan — In 2016 several schools were tested for lead and some were contaminated. I was teaching in a school where all of the water fountains were shut down. The Board of Education supplied us with water. I would have a gallon every day and students would come in with a cup if they felt like having water.

My understanding now is that schools are safe. However, recently a WNYC reporter broke a story about how some schools still have lead in their water. So that is an issue of concern. The Newark Board of Education though says everything is safe.

Betty Maloney — They are still saying that? Even after this story broke?

Yvette Jordan — Yes.

Betty Maloney — As a teacher, what do you see as the long term effects of the water crisis on the children of Newark?

Yvette Jordan — In my school, which is Central High School, one third of our students are labeled special needs right now. The issue is, where is this coming from? Is it the lead from the water, from the paint, from the dust? Or is it from a myriad of other concerns that kids may be exposed to. So I don’t want to say that lead is the only issue that is causing impairment. I don’t feel it is. However, it is a contributor, and that is what a lot of residents are not understanding.

An example, I am a member of a book club and recently I drove somebody home. We were talking about water and she said she hasn’t even tested hers yet. I said it’s been a year and a half, what are you waiting for? She said oh I don’t know, I guess I’ll call soon.

This is the issue that I’m concerned with every day. People need to understand the importance of what is going on. It’s just like you have to shake people. Folks need to wake up.

Betty Maloney — Who do you think should pay to fix the infrastructure of the city of Newark?

Yvette Jordan — If corporations are reaping the benefits in Newark they should also help support where they are making money. They have a responsibility to the residents and the city as a whole, in my view, to lay some money at our feet for fixing infrastructure problems.

And I think we need some oversight in what the city is doing right now. I am talking about judicial oversight. Because, unfortunately, the residents of Newark have lost the trust of our city government as well as the state. We need somebody to actually follow what they are doing to ensure it is actually done right.

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