Evidence of high lead levels in PA school's water was suppressed by admins
- A rural district north of Pittsburgh has been roiled by a scandal that ended with three administrators’ resignations — including the superintendent’s — and the closing of Butler County’s Summit Elementary School.
- The Tribune-Review reports school board member and attorney Leland Clark, after hearing regular complaints about the taste of the school’s water, filed requests for water test results with the Department of Environmental Protection, along with requesting copies of communications between the DEP and school officials.
- Clark found out in January that tests in August had identified high lead and copper levels in the school’s water supply and that the DEP had given specific instructions for how to mitigate the problem which were ignored, leading to the resignations as well as an ongoing criminal investigation and a federal lawsuit.
Lead in the water is a symptom of the terribly old infrastructures facing many schools across the country. Individual cities and states set their own standards for acceptable levels of lead. "If the buildings were built even before 1986, there are chances that there are some lead components in the (infrastructure) whether that’s in the sauter that’s used — it may not be the entire pipe — but 1986 was the cutoff for when they had to stop using any components of lead," said 120WaterAudit CEO Megan Glover, in a recent interview with Education Dive.
And it isn't just school infrastructure, but overall infrastructure in the cities and districts housing the school. "If you’re on a well and are close to either large agriculture, whether that be plants or animals .... or fracking areas," there's higher risk, she added, saying often contamination happens when water leaves the treatment plant.
In Houston, schools must take action if the lead makes up 20 parts per billion in the water. In New York City, it’s 15 parts per billion, which is consistent with the Environmental Protection Agency’s threshold. But in Illinois, schools have to notify families if lead reaches even 5 parts per billion. No amount of lead in water is considered safe. D.C. is exemplary in that it tests every water tap within a school, but there is no state or federal mandate for water testing in schools, Glover said.
The most troubling aspect of the situation at Summit Elementary School is the cover-up. Schools and districts are testing lead levels for a reason. Mitigation can be costly, but it is in the basic health and safety interests of both students and staff.
Autumn A. Arnett contributed to the reporting on this article.
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