Eugene students drink filtered water after lead concerns close fountains
by Alisha Roemeling, originally posted on June 9, 2016
EUGENE — Students at Roosevelt Middle School lined up during a five-minute break between classes Tuesday morning to fill paper cups with water from a 5-gallon tank of filtered water after all school drinking fountains were shut off Monday afternoon.
Roosevelt, in south Eugene, is one of three Eugene School District schools that have taken precautionary measures to ensure its students have access to filtered water dispensers and bottled water. The steps were taken after the district informed parents and students Monday night that some drinking fountains and sinks at the three schools, as well as one sink at the district’s administrative offices, had tested positive for elevated levels of lead.
The other two schools were Sheldon High and Kennedy Middle. The elevated level at Roosevelt was discovered Monday; the elevated levels at the other three district buildings were discovered in April. Plumbing fixtures were replaced at those three locales, and retesting found that lead content in the water was at safe levels, district officials said.
District leaders said they decided to be more proactive after learning about the April test results from facilities staff employees only last week.
Roosevelt Principal Chris Mitchell, made aware of the concerns Monday afternoon, said he immediately had all school drinking fountains shut off and went out to get some clean water around 1:30 p.m.
“I moved the staff water cooler into the hallway and went down the street to Haggen (grocery store) and got about 300 bottles of water,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell also delivered an intercom announcement to all Roosevelt students on Tuesday.
“I told them this (not using the fountains) is a precautionary measure,” Mitchell said. “There doesn’t seem to be a lot of concern. I think the kids understand that we think they’ve been safe, and they’re comfortable with that.”
The standard for “safe” amounts of lead in the water is 15 parts per billion, or PPB. Anything above that number is considered to be elevated, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
The highest level found in spot checks at Eugene district schools was 22.7 PPB at a water fountain at Sheldon High School.
By way of contrast, traces of lead at two Portland School District schools found in testing earlier this spring were as high as 52 PPB — more than three times the EPA’s “action level” of 15 PPB.
In Eugene, water fixtures that contained traces of lead, including sink and fountain fittings, were replaced at Kennedy and Sheldon almost immediately after district facilities employees received test results on April 14, district spokeswoman Kerry Delf said.
While district facilities workers made the necessary adjustments to alleviate the issue in April, Delf said they failed to adequately inform district leaders about the elevated levels until it was brought up in a meeting with Superintendent Gustavo Balderas late last week.
Balderas was copied on an earlier email, from a facilities staff member to another district employee, that referenced “pretty far down” in the email the discovery of traces of lead at the district schools. But that reference was missed by Balderas, Delf said.
Delf said the oversight was not intentional.
“There was no intent anywhere along the way to not properly communicate anything,” Delf said. “It just didn’t come to the awareness of the people who need to know until last week.”
Delf said the district is moving to establish proper ways for staff to communicate issues to other staff members and the public.
“We’re now establishing proper protocols,” Delf said. “The intention of all of this is to take the right steps and do the right thing for students and staff, and we need to have clear (steps) to adequately communicate with the public.”
Balderas said he wants to hold a community meeting for parents and others to address the matter further. No date has been set, but the meeting could happen as early as next week, he said.
School board response
Eugene School Board Chairwoman Anne Marie Levis said she learned about the issue in an email that Balderas sent to her on Friday.
“I think the district has done a really good job of keeping us informed and being proactive on this,” Levis said Tuesday. “It’s not widespread, it’s slightly elevated, it’s not in every school, and I think the district is taking all the right steps to test and make corrections and inform the public.”
Delf said communication about the traces of lead “did not happen as quickly as we would have liked, but it will in the future.” No disciplinary action has been taken against any employee in regard to the matter, she said.
Facilities employees tested about 230 water sites throughout the district in 1998, which is when Roosevelt, Kennedy, Sheldon and the district office were originally determined to have had elevated levels of lead in some water sources, Delf said.
The proper equipment was replaced at that time, but Delf said the district decided to retest the same sites this spring, following up on a request made by Balderas.
Delf said the district also was responding to community concerns following the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, where much of the city’s water was found to be contaminated with dangerous levels of lead.
What students say
On their lunch break Tuesday, some Sheldon High students said they are concerned, not so much about the delay in learning about the elevated levels but rather that such levels could occur.
“We heard about it this morning from a teacher who told us not to drink from any of the fountains, just to be safe,” said 15-year-old Makena Buchholtz. “But I’m just going to bring (my own) water bottle.”
Ryan Poulter, 16, said the situation is especially frustrating because of the recent warm weather.
“This is like the worst time of year that this could happen,” Poulter said, “It’s so hot. I think it’s pretty concerning, and people are definitely talking about it.”
District officials said Monday that the four affected sites will receive bottled or filtered water until school is out for summer on June 16.
Janitors also are flushing out water sources at all schools in the district each morning, as water that remains in pipes and fixtures overnight are more susceptible to heightened traces of lead, Delf said.
During the summer, the district plans to hire an independent firm to undertake a comprehensive, districtwide testing for lead in the water supply, Delf said. All water faucets for drinking and food preparation will be tested, she said. The company, Eugene-based PBS Engineering + Environmental, will be paid about $25,000, she said.
The Springfield School District and the Bethel School District in west Eugene both aim to do the same in coming months.
The Bethel district “has already hired an independent professional environmental service to begin testing as soon as school is out for summer,” district spokesman Pat McGillivray said in an email.
“This will allow the professionals to access our water sources without interruption in order to ensure the most accurate testing,” McGillivray said. “Rather than random sampling, our tests will be conducted on all potential sources of drinking water in every building, leaving no room for doubt.”
In Springfield, district spokeswoman Jen McCulley said tests were conducted throughout the district in 2002 “and the levels were all well below the tolerated level.”
McCulley said parents, students and staff were notified Tuesday that the district plans to test all its sites again beginning the week of June 20.
Based on previous tests, the district does not believe there are elevated levels of lead in any of its water supply, McCulley said.
“We don’t have any locations we believe are problematic,” she said. But “we want to make sure that everyone has access to clean water.”