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In New Jersey, Newark's Water Crisis Continues

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Officials in New Jersey have proposed a plan to ensure Newark residents have clean, lead-free water. Under this plan, Essex County would direct $120 million to Newark to replace old lead pipes that are tainting the water. These are the pipes that run from water mains into people's homes. The Essex County executive says the project could be finished in 24 to 30 months, and a fix cannot come soon enough for residents like Shakima Thomas. She's a social worker in Newark who has a young son, and she joins us now.

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us.

SHAKIMA THOMAS: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: So I know it's been known for a while now that there have been elevated levels of lead in the drinking water in Newark - like, at least two years already. Can you just give me a sense of what you have to do day to day to make sure your family has access to lead-free water?

THOMAS: I have to make sure that my household is stocked up with bottled water. I have to make sure that my son isn't drinking the water. I have to constantly remind him. He already has a lead level that I'm concerned about.

CORNISH: Oh, he's been tested?

THOMAS: Yes, he's been tested. So it's, you know, not just stress but an economic burden to keep my household furnished with bottled water.

CORNISH: And how are you getting this bottled water? How much of it is coming from the city?

THOMAS: So far, I only have two cases. And I actually just go to the supermarket, and that's what I've been doing.

CORNISH: Wow.

THOMAS: And the reason why I'm not going to the city was because when I went for the first time, I was denied bottled water, and I was there with my son. And I explained to the woman who was coordinating the distribution that I had lead levels of 76.2 parts per billion based on water tests that the city did back in February of this year. And she kept telling me I wasn't affected and my water is OK and I'm not on the list to receive bottled water. I just don't want to go through that every day.

CORNISH: And the legal limit is 15 parts per billion, right?

THOMAS: Right.

CORNISH: OK, so you're off the charts.

THOMAS: Yeah. There's no safe level at all anyway.

CORNISH: So how much money are you spending a week out of your own pocket on bottled water from the supermarket?

THOMAS: I would say, like, $20. Plus, I pay a monthly water bill. And I don't drive so I just take an Uber or a Lyft.

CORNISH: So it gets pretty expensive.

THOMAS: Right. So I'm just, like, kind of relying on myself right now for that.

CORNISH: When you talk to people in your neighborhood about how they're dealing, what are people saying? I saw that there was a protest last night during the MTV Music Awards, which were in Newark. Just tell me, what are you hearing?

THOMAS: The community is actually divided. We have people that think this is wrong for this city to not be honest with us and provide relief to us, and we have people who are employed under the mayor's administration and saying that the mayor is doing a great job and we're just complaining and we want to be seen. So the community is really divided right now.

CORNISH: That's Shakima Thomas. She's a social worker in Newark.

Thank you very much for joining us.

THOMAS: You're welcome.

CORNISH: We did reach out to the office of Newark Mayor Ross Baraka for a response to Shakima Thomas' claim that she was denied bottled water even though the water in her home tested for high levels of lead. We have not heard back yet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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