Lead in drinking water: Portland chief says no record of fixes at five schools

by Betsy Hammond, originally posted on June 1, 2016


Portland Superintendent Carole Smith disclosed Wednesday that as many as five additional Portland schools that showed elevated levels of lead in drinking water may also have drinking fountains or food preparation sinks that were not fixed.

A single drinking fountain or sink in each of the schools — Jackson Middle School, Applegate Head Start, Vernon School, Peninsula Elementary and Whitman Elementary — was found to be giving off tainted water, Smith said.

The district has no records saying those problems were fixed, she said. All those fountains and sinks were closed to all users as of Tuesday and testing was launched Wednesday, she said.

The Oregonian/OregonLive also obtained records late Wednesday showing lead testing and remediation steps at school buildings since 2002, including tests this year at Rose City Park and Creston.

One of the fixtures without a record of fixes, a bubbler in or near Vernon’s Room 202, had had tested at 130 parts per billion of lead in April 2012. The federal safety level is 15 parts per billion.

The memo said fixes could have included replacing fixtures, installing filters or posting signs telling staffers and students not to use the fixtures, but it was unclear which, if any, of those things were done at the five schools.

A single drinking fountain at Franklin High and Faubion School also had the same problem, but those schools were shut down last summer and their entire plumbing systems are being replaced during full-scale renovation or construction. None of the results beyond Vernon’s showed higher than 28 parts per billion.

It’s also not clear whether officials rechecked lead levels after making improvements at other schools. The documents obtained Wednesday by The Oregonian/OregonLive show dozens of fixtures found to have emitted high levels of lead for which no “clearance testing” was noted after filters were installed.

Smith and other Portland Public Schools leaders are scrambling to regain public trust after being forced to acknowledge they knew that young children were being exposed to unsafe drinking water but did not immediately shut off all tainted fountains and sinks and were slow to, or failed entirely to, notify parents and employees.

Oregon Public Broadcasting reported emails showing officials had discussed high lead levels at certain schools as recently as 2012.

Smith told hundreds gathered at a second community meeting, this one at Rose City Park School, that she and outside experts will take steps to uncover past problems and institute better practices going forward.

Many parents vented anger at district leaders in general and Smith in particular, with many calling on her to resign.

She said she acted as soon as she learned of the positive lead tests and the district’s response to them. Her highest short-term priority was to shut down all fountains and sinks for the remainder of the school year and provide bottled water to all schools, she said.

Both Smith and the memo said the district released data about the district’s lead testing from 2001 through 2015 to Willamette Week in February 2015. They provided that same report to school board members on May 31. The paper didn’t report the data until Tuesday, just before an emergency board meeting.

The Oregonian/OregonLive obtained its own copy of that testing data Tuesday night. According to an analysis of the data, Portland Public Schools has tested for lead in water at 87 schools since 2009 and found at least one drinking fountain or faucet emitting water with lead levels above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “action level” of 15 parts per billion at 51 of them.

Willamette Week’s news editor, Aaron Mesh, confirmed late Wednesday that his newsroom had received data revealing dozens of previously unreported tests showing unsafe levels of lead last year — months before concerned parents sought testing at Creston and Rose City Park on their own.

The Oregonian/OregonLive first reported those tests last week. After news broke about “tests that showed elevated lead levels at two schools,” Mesh said in a statement, “our newsroom realized that the scope of the problem could be larger than PPS had disclosed.”

The testing data provided to Willamette Week did not include information about repair or mitigation efforts, Magliano wrote.

“In order to verify that the remediation data in the database is correct,” he said, “we are currently physically inventorying buildings in the locations that the data indicates had elevated levels of lead.”

All fountains and faucets in all schools and district buildings will be tested this summer, Smith said. A contractor has been hired and will begin work June 8, the second-to-last day of the school year, she said.

Schools that will have programs operating at them this summer will be tested first and, if necessary, repaired first she said.

The school board, not Smith, will hire an outside agency to investigate who knew about the high lead results, who failed to inform the superintendent and parents, and who failed to shut off access to water known to be tainted, and why.

“We are going to examine the facts and take action and hold people accountable,” board chairman Tom Koehler told the crowd.

Smith also plans to create a task force of experts, including county and state health and environmental leaders, to decide what Portland Public Schools should do about water quality going forward. She said she wants recommendations on how often to test school water, how frequently to change filters and the like.

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