Oregon students get bottled water; lead found at 2 schools

AP News
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Posted: Jun 01, 2016 1:14 AM

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — A third-party, independent investigation will be conducted after high amounts of lead were found in water sources at two schools, which led the district to close all water fountains, Portland Public Schools Superintendent Carole Smith said Tuesday.

Smith spoke to about 60 parents at a special school board meeting held to address their announcement last week that tests done in March found elevated levels of lead in 14 of 92 water sources at Creston K-8 School and the Rose City Park School.

"I was made aware of this late last week and subsequently informed the board," Smith said while reiterating an apology she gave Friday in a statement. "This is not our protocol, this is not acceptable, and we're taking a number of immediate actions."

She said two district employees could be placed on administrative leave as a result of the investigation. Some of the other actions include creating a new website to communicate about the testing and fixes and creating a 'healthy water task force' to come up with a new water testing strategy for the future.

Later Tuesday, Smith, as well as officials from Oregon Health Authority and Multnomah County took some harsh criticism from parents at a community meeting for what some said was a lack of communication and failure to follow through on previous signs that there were problems.

"The fact that we have an aging stock of buildings and these buildings have shown in the past to have toxic levels of lead, and the current administration did not address this, is evidence enough that we are operating in a dysfunctional system," said parent Mike Southern, who also called for Smith's resignation. "I am tired of the broken promises, the mismanagement and the endless dog and pony show of meeting after meeting that pretends to address the public need."

The district said it will provide bottled drinking water for all district students and staff through the end of the school year, until schools can be tested this summer, which happens every 15 years. The district placed bags over water fountains at all schools on Friday, Smith said.

She said she can't predict the cost of testing the system, saying the district may have to use reserve funds if it tops the $450,000 budget for the project.

The lack of lead testing in Oregon schools' water systems — concerns for which were largely brought to the forefront by the Flint, Michigan, water crisis — prompted Gov. Kate Brown in April to call for a statewide review of existing school processes. She directed the Oregon Health Authority, which carries out Environmental Protection Agency water regulations at the state level, and the Oregon Department of Education to also make recommendations for improvement.

"Schools are not included when water systems test for lead as required by EPA, meaning that a water system may be deemed to have safe lead levels overall, while water quality at schools remains unknown," Brown said in an April statement.

Earlier this year, a Flint-inspired nationwide review by the USA Today Network found that more than 2,000 water systems fell short of EPA rules for lead, ranking Oregon at No. 18.

It also found EPA has handed out 180 citations to officials nationwide for failing to immediately tell the public — as was the case at the two Portland schools — when high lead levels are discovered.