Lead in Water and Modernizations: Discuss

On Thursday, October 6, starting at 11:30 am, expect a perfect storm of testimony at the Wilson Building. That is when the city council convenes a hearing on two, seemingly unrelated, items: summer modernization work in DCPS and new legislation for lead testing.

(For more information and to sign up to testify, see here.)

The hearing is being convened by two council committees: education and transportation and the environment, chaired by David Grosso and Mary Cheh, respectively.

Those same committees have overseen testing for lead in water in schools, which has tended to diffuse responsibility for causes and solutions.

For instance, one important factor for the presence of lead in water is where/how it gets into water and dispersed. After revelations in the spring of high lead levels in many DC public schools, we know now that high lead levels occur in unmodernized schools as well as new and renovated ones.

In brand-new school buildings like Walker Jones, for instance, high lead levels might come from new fixtures leaching lead–which would indicate a fixture sourcing issue for contractors and the city agency (DGS) in charge of public school buildings.

In older buildings untouched by modernization, the presence of lead in water could be from fixtures or from pipes in, and/or leading to, the building. In 2004, high lead levels in DC’s water resulted when chemicals added to the water for purification increased leaching of the toxic metal from old lead service lines, which are found in areas of the city with older houses. Replacement of those service lines continues today; the water authority recently published a map of service lines and their composition for residents’ reference.

The bill under discussion at this hearing, B21-831, would amend the Healthy Schools Act to ensure that DGS regularly tests and put filters on drinking sources in all DC public schools, both charter and DCPS. DGS had previously only done so for DCPS schools.

This change is very welcome indeed. In the wake of high lead levels found in DCPS schools by DGS, the DC public charter school board asked charter schools to get their water tested or provide documentation of the testing. This resulted in a panoply of testing protocols across all charter schools by a panoply of testing companies—and, not surprisingly, given that not all devices were tested at all schools, relatively few problems identified.

(This led Jeff Canady, a public witness during the council’s June 22 lead in water hearing, to ask if the charter board could share how it so admirably solved the issue of lead in water.)

In addition to the new legislation appearing to guarantee consistent testing, standard protocols, and regular remediation regimes, it seems that DGS will pick up the tab for all of it.

Or will it?

Clarity on this issue is of prime importance: Sometime in the spring or early summer, the charter board asked for reimbursement of the $100,000 it paid for testing in charter schools. The reimbursement was granted out of funds provided through the Healthy Schools Act–even though the funds were intended for school meals and gardens and the act itself does not (yet) specify any lead testing in charter schools.

(There is more than a little irony in the fact that the charter board wanted $100,000: Starting this April, the head of the charter board, Scott Pearson, donated nearly $100,000 of his own money to politicians around the country, including $50,000 in May to Hillary Clinton. He has also donated thousands to DC politicians running for election this year.)

This hearing on October 6 embodies just such an intersection of politics, schools, and money:

That is, half the politicians charged with oversight of lead in water testing for this hearing did not even show up at the last hearing on lead in water, in June. (Yes, I am speaking about Ward 2’s Jack Evans, Ward 7’s Yvette Alexander, at large member Anita Bonds, and Ward 4’s Brandon Todd.)

If lead in school water, and kids drinking it, isn’t enough to get politicians to show up at hearings sponsored by committees they are members of, is it any surprise that DCPS modernizations run along those same political fault lines?

At last week’s community meeting on the renovation of Watkins Elementary, for instance, lead in water was raised as an issue in the swing space that Watkins students are in for this school year. That swing space is in Eliot-Hine Middle School, still unrenovated, but where a blitz of summer work enabled its use for Watkins.

Test results from May and August on a number of water devices at Eliot-Hine were handed out to people at that Watkins meeting. Some of us had never seen those results before—but were told they were on line.

A number of devices in May at Eliot-Hine had levels above the new action level of 1 part per billion. One of the water devices was given placard at that time, saying “Not For Drinking,” due to recurring high levels of lead.

The results from August omitted most of the water devices that had the highest levels in May, as they were not “traditional drinking sources.”

But the implications for both schools and their renovations are huge:

–How was the device that was given a placard in May saying “Not For Drinking” retested in August and found to have levels below the new threshold of less than 1 part per billion of lead?

–Are the test results we were handed only for devices in the space of Eliot-Hine that Watkins is using? Or for the entirety of Eliot-Hine? The results on-line for Eliot-Hine, for instance, are identical to those handed out at the meeting.

–Can elementary school students read a sign that says “Not For Drinking” and understand what it means?

–Will the renovated Watkins—with all new pipes, walls, floors, and fixtures—have lead in its water like the old one did?

–Will Eliot-Hine get a renovation that does not just involve summer work to make it usable as a swing space?

and, most sadly,

–Why do we have any water fixtures dispensing undrinkable water in the capital of the richest nation on earth?

For sure, there is a lot riding on this new legislation in addition to those questions:

At that same community meeting for Watkins, Ward 6 state board of education rep. Joe Weedon took issue with what Josh Tuch, DCPS’s facility rep., noted about remediation filters lasting about a year. Weedon noted that the efficacy of filters in removing lead from water is determined not by time, but by flow, which means that an annual filter change may be more than enough for a device—or not enough at all.

Expect even more issues raised at the hearing, which is a necessary first step to ensure that testing for lead in water in all our public schools is not merely thorough, but consistent, informed, and adequately (and transparently!) funded.

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