Drinking water at these 9 Newark schools will return in April after lead crisis

By Karen Yi | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
on March 30, 2017

 

 

NEWARK -- A year ago, school officials broke the news that elevated levels of lead had been found in nearly half of the public schools. 

Water fountains were shut off, "Do not drink" notices were plastered above water sources and officials tried to calm public alarm amid national headlines and comparisons to the dangerous water levels in Flint, Mich.

But on Tuesday, district officials announced that the drinking water at all 30 affected school buildings would be back on by next school year and nine restored next month.

"My goal is to ensure that when we start the 17-18 school year in September all schools will be on city water, drinking from safe sources," School Business Administrator Valerie Wilson said during a public meeting. "None of our children, our staff, our community will have access to tainted water."

Wilson said the district spent $1 million to test 8,500 water sources across the city's 65 schools. She said the district turned off 400 drinking water sources last year as a precaution.

Some water sources at those schools tested higher than the Environmental Protection Agency's "action level" for lead, which is a threshold requiring additional testing, monitoring and remediation. The lead action level is 15 parts per billion, according to state officials

District officials said they proactively started more thoroughly testing their water last year and found high levels of lead. Before, the district tested a sampling of 10 water sources at each school once a year. In the last year, every single water source has been tested at least once. 

Water quality test data is available by school on the district website. 

"It turns out what surfaced in Newark was a national issue and Newark's handling of it was actually vastly better than other places," Schools Superintendent Christopher Cerf said. "It turned out positive after Newark was a sort of canary in the mine. The process and procedures that [Valerie] Wilson has taken us through has been picked up by and adopted nationally as the way to handle this."

Others districts around the state also found elevated lead levels at their schools last year, prompting the state to pass new rules requiring schools test for lead at least once every six years. Districts that tested their water after the rules were passed last summer will be eligible for reimbursement; $10 million has been earmarked for such costs. 

The district is working on getting reimbursed for some of its testing but said the earmarked dollars would not go very far and do not include costs for remediating water fountains, installing filters or changing pipes. The district's buildings, on average, are 92 years old.

Wilson said the district adopted a three-phase process to transition schools off bottled water and back to running drinking water. That includes: replacing pipes or fixtures, re-sampling water for lead levels and installing filters that turn off the water if water reaches above the action level.

These nine schools will have their water turned on after Spring Break by April 17:

District officials say they've spent $50,000 to remediate water sources at the nine schools so far. Drinking water at other schools will be phased in, some in the late spring and the rest in the summer. 

An additional 15 schools that did not have their drinking water turned off have had their filters updated. "It's going to be everyone on filtered water," Wilson said. 

She assured residents that the children "have always been safe." Wilson said had the district known what it knows now, it would not have shut down the drinking water at all 30 buildings -- only those above the action level.

"We chose to be cautious," she said. "Our levels were nowhere near the levels that were found in Flint."

Of the 500 children that opted to be tested for lead poisoning, only one tested above the threshold that is considered safe. The child was not a Newark Public Schools student, Wilson said. 

Even at low degrees of exposure, lead can affect a child's intelligence, ability to pay attention and academic achievement, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

"Newark was the trailblazer, we led the way and we dealt with the issue before anybody else did," Wilson said.

Do you like this post?

Be the first to comment