Newark Residents Await Solutions to the Water Problem

Hilda Aguilar, a resident of the Ironbound neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey, is worried about the lead contamination found in the water at her daughters’ school. (Photo via Reporte Hispano)

Hilda Aguilar, a resident of the Ironbound neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey, is worried about the lead contamination found in the water at her daughters’ school. (Photo via Reporte Hispano)

Hilda Aguilar raised her hand to speak, in Spanish, at a public hearing convened by Newark Mayor Ras Baraka at Central High School the evening of Monday, March 28. She held her daughter’s hand as she demanded to know if it was safe to send her girls to school.

Aguilar’s daughters go to Wilson Avenue School, one of the 30 schools forced to close after high levels of lead were detected in the water supply. “I want to know what you are going to do about the lead. My girls’ school is not doing anything about that,” she said.

Mayor Baraka replied directly to Aguilar in front of a room of near 80 people, saying that there was a problem with old infrastructure and that the first measure he had taken was to guarantee a supply of bottled drinking water. He added that tests were being performed on children to rule out or identify lead contamination.

For the moment, said the mayor, the biggest challenge is the lack of funding to replace the old water infrastructure in schools, which could cost nearly a billion dollars. Baraka insisted that he supports the state law that seeks to impose a tax on bottled water to use the revenue to repair the infrastructure of Newark’s schools and others throughout the state in need of repair.

Aguilar told Reporte Hispano that her daughters had taken the lead test and that she is waiting for the results.

Meanwhile, members of the Ironbound Community Corporation (ICC) called for the literature regarding lead testing to also be printed in Spanish and Portuguese. “We have many Hispanics and Portuguese people in the Ironbound neighborhood. Not all of them speak English, and we need to make things easier for local immigrants,” said Alexi Martínez, an activist with the ICC.

At press time, a bill had been introduced by state Sens. Steve Sweeney, Ronald Rice and Teresa Ruiz proposing a plan to require a mandatory extension of lead testing to all children in New Jersey schools.

“Lead poisoning can cause irreversible brain and nervous system damage and a lifetime of behavioral and learning problems, all with no obvious symptoms,” said Sen. Ruiz, chair of the Senate’s Education Committee.

“But lead poisoning is completely preventable. For that reason, it is critical that we take action to identify where the problem exists and understand the scope of the threat. Nothing is more important than the safety of our children and there is no price tag can be placed on their health and well-being,” added the lawmaker.

The bill would require every school to immediately test their drinking water for lead and to do so at least twice a year. The first test would be conducted in the 30 days prior to the start of the school year, and the second one six months later. The legislation would assign $3 million to the Department of Education to distribute among school districts to pay for the tests. Additionally, the bill requests a total of $20 million to install water filters or other certified treatments on every drinking water fountain and sink used to wash food products in schools.

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