Litigating Newark's Lead Contamination Crisis

Nancy Marks ‘76 is an environmental lawyer for the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC). In her Log Lunch talk on Friday, she talked about the current lead contamination crisis in Newark, NJ and described NRDC’s work on the issue. She started her talk by asking the audience what they thought was the greatest achievement of the environmental movement in the last 50 years. For her, one answer is the attention to the detrimental effects of lead which resulted in the prohibition of leaded gasoline. Unfortunately, as was brought to public attention with the case of Flint, MI, many people are still exposed to lead through their drinking water. Marks emphasized that Flint and Newark are not alone with this issue: for every Flint, there are 100 more cities with lead in their water.

In Newark, lead was first found in drinking water in the schools. The city shut off these drinking fountains and then proceeded as if the problem had been solved. However, soon it came to light that there were elevated lead levels in water throughout the city. The NRDC wanted to step in and file a suit against the city, but they had trouble finding a client because many groups were supportive of the current mayor. Eventually, they found a small teacher’s union whose members were outraged about how the lead was affecting their students. With this client, the NRDC took a case against Newark. Marks explained that the case itself has been moving slowly, but by drawing attention to the issue, it has yielded other benefits. The city provided filters and bottled water to people in affected neighborhoods, and there is now a bill in the New Jersey legislature to replace all the lead pipes in the state. For Marks, the moral of the story is that litigation is not always a direct route in addressing environmental problems. She ended her talk by detailing the NRDC’s next steps in seeking justice and safe drinking water for the people of Newark.

Nancy Marks (right) with Joya Sonnenfeldt ‘10

By Rosa Kirk-Davidoff ’21