Newark superintendent says no lead concerns as students head back to school

NEWARK, New Jersey (WABC) -- Summer break is over, and it's back to school for thousands of children in New Jersey. But for some students in Newark, there are additional worries amid a lead water crisis.

The district began preparing for the new school year by distributing backpacks at an event for students last week, and Superintendent Roger Leon says that there is no need for concern and that the drinking water is safe in the schools.

He said there is no need for bottled water for students either.

Roughly 35,000 students in the district are heading back to 66 buildings, many of which are very old -- the average age of a Newark school is 92 years old.

There is a lot of concern about the infrastructure, and three years ago when the lead water crisis first arose, it was in the schools that the elevated levels were detected.

Since then, the district says it has replaced the lead pipes in most of those buildings, and all of them have been fitted with commercial-grade water filters. Officials say they are superior to the ones people had been using in their homes.

Leon was on hand at the Ann Street School to greet students as they arrived for their first day on Tuesday morning.

Late last wee, a federal judge ruled that Newark didn't have to expand its bottled water program to include pregnant women or families with young children who aren't directly affected by elevated lead levels in drinking water.

U.S. District Judge Esther Salas rejected a motion by the Natural Resources Defense Council, saying the group had failed to show that households in another service area in Newark faced "irreparable harm."

City attorneys argued earlier in the month that mandating additional bottled water would cause unnecessary panic.

The city has been distributing water to residents in about 14,000 homes in the western part of the city after water from two houses tested positive for lead above the federal threshold of 15 parts per billion, but the environmental group called for distribution also to residents in the eastern portion served by a different water treatment plant.

Yvette Jordan, of New Education Workers Caucus, which also sued Newark and the state environmental department last year over the handling of the lead in water issue, called the decision "disappointing."

"Newark and the state of New Jersey should care enough about our communities to provide bottled water to vulnerable residents in all neighborhoods harmed by lead in their water," she said.

The Natural Resources Defense Council said other residents were at risk in part due to the blending of water from another plant - something the city has said it discontinued by closing gates and valves between the two sources.

Mayor Ras Baraka said in a statement that it was evident that "we have been, are and will continue to move in the right direction."

"The only permanent solution to eliminate the risks of lead is to replace every remaining lead service line in our city," he said. "And we are going to do so quickly and at no cost to residents through an unprecedented and aggressive lead service line replacement program."

City, state and county officials earlier announced a plan to borrow $120 million to dramatically cut the time it will take to replace pipes causing the problem. Officials said the program should cut from 10 years to under 30 months the time it will take to replace about 18,000 lead lines in Newark.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report)

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