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Seattle schools' lead woes years in the making

District had many chances to fix problem, records show
Published 10:00 p.m., Monday, August 9, 2004
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As Seattle Public Schools wrestles with a multimillion-dollar problem -- how to get potentially dangerous levels of lead out of its drinking water -- one thing is clear: It's a problem that was years in the making.

To get to the level of contamination plaguing the district today, warnings about lead had to be ignored, a comprehensive testing and repair program had to be abandoned and aging water systems had to be neglected.

All of those things happened between 1990 and last fall, when concerned parents finally persuaded a new School Board to test the water.

"The results show that the corrosion has been getting progressively worse for the last 10 years," said Mark Cooper, a Wedgwood Elementary parent who helped raise the health issue last year.

Since then, the 47,000-student district has shut off most drinking fountains and provided bottled water to schools built before 1997. District Superintendent Raj Manhas has said he's not interested in launching an investigation into why the water problems weren't addressed sooner, and thinks district resources would be better used for fixing problems rather than identifying a scapegoat.

A look at water-quality tests and corrective action in Seattle schools over the past decade raises more questions than answers.

Districtwide tests in the early '90s were posted recently for the first time on the district's Web site, after parents complained that they hadn't been adequately informed about water quality in schools. The early results showed that lead levels in drinking water exceeded federal safety limits in one-third of school fountains and 40 percent of faucets.

At that time, the district replaced most fountains and faucets where water exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lead limit for schools: 20 parts per billion. Most were retested two years later and many still had lead levels over the limit, suggesting that water pipes were the biggest source of contamination.

But what started out as a comprehensive testing and repair program trailed off after 1992.

Additional testing was done in 2000 and 2001, although it was limited to a random sampling of about 27 schools. Some fountains with lead levels below the EPA limit in 1992 were retested again during those years. Many others exceeding the limit were not retested, and those that were retested were not replaced.

To examine the problem more closely, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer took a look at three elementary schools that are among many being considered for repairs, after recent tests found lead levels that were among the highest in the district.

The schools -- Schmitz Park, Rainier View and Alternative Elementary No. 2 -- are located in demographically diverse areas of the city, and the test results -- and the district's response -- are equally varied.

At one school, initial tests showed no evidence of a problem, but follow-up testing two years later showed signs of contamination that went unheeded.

At the other schools, fountains were dutifully replaced, but tests showed a more systemic lead problem that went unaddressed -- until now.

The bottom line: At these three schools alone, a total of more than 900 children were exposed every year to lead-laced water that the federal government deems unsafe.

Alternative Elementary No. 2

The 290-student school, formerly known as Decatur Elementary, is located a few blocks from the Sand Point Golf & Country Club.

AE 2 found itself in the unenviable position of having the single-worst reading of any school sampled in the recent tests -- though test results from the early 1990s held little indication of the extensive problems that emerged this year.

A drinking fountain in Room 5, a classroom, showed lead levels of 1,600 parts per billion, 80 times over the EPA limit, on a "first-draw" sample of water that had been sitting in pipes for at least eight hours. The 1961 building also had the third highest percentage of fountains -- 89 percent -- exceeding EPA limits of any school assessed in the recent tests.

Parents reacted with outrage, and a meeting with district officials was held at the school last month. The majority of fountains tested at the school in 1990 had lead levels below 10 ppb -- a surprising contrast to the current results, which found that 46 percent of locations tested showed lead levels of more than 100 ppb on a first-draw sample, and more than one-fifth had lead levels of more than 200 ppb.

As with other schools, lead levels dropped when the fountains were flushed and retested. And the now-infamous Room 5 location exhibited no warning signs in 1990. The water in the fountain had lead levels of just 4 ppb on a first-draw sample, and it was not tested again until this year.

Principal John Miner was a teacher at the school in 1992 when the fountain in Room 12, the classroom he taught in for four years, showed lead levels of 29 ppb after being replaced two years earlier. Miner said he was never warned about the water and drank from the fountain daily, as did his students. In the recent tests, the same fountain showed lead levels of 120 ppb -- six times the EPA limit.

Miner said the school district should have informed school staff and the community about the test results.

"I would guess that in an organization as large as Seattle Public Schools, more than one person had this information," he said. "I don't know why that information was not shared, but I wish that it were.

"My biggest question here is why this wasn't dealt with 12 years ago. That's the big question I think the district needs to address, and I know they're reluctant to."

Ron English, a school district attorney who is overseeing the recent tests, said talks with the engineering firm conducting the tests, as well as county and state experts, failed to provide a reason why the school's results changed so drastically. Factors such as a change in testing methods or faulty equipment have been ruled out, English said.

"We've eliminated all the obvious things that could have gone wrong and still don't have an explanation for it. This is being done, literally, fountain by fountain."

Though the schools with the highest levels of lead contamination in the recent tests are more than 40 years old, their results are too varied to draw parallels that would provide a tidy conclusion, according to English.

"It's not merely that the pipes are 40 years old, so it should be the same as the building down the street," he said.

"You can't predict. Decatur, for example, shouldn't have been that bad, since the 1990 results are quite good. It was a surprise."

Schmitz Park Elementary

In 1990, the single-level West Seattle school, located on a quiet street next to an urban forest, showed alarmingly high levels of lead.

All but one fountain tested then had lead levels exceeding the EPA limit, a clear warning of the lead contamination found again in the 325-student school more than a decade later.

The district replaced 16 fountains after the 1990 tests, but took no further action two years later when lead levels in seven of the new fountains again crept up past the safety limit.

One of those -- a fountain in the nurse's office -- tested at five times over the EPA limit of 20 ppb about four years ago, but was not replaced. It tested at 170 ppb on the recent tests, which found that 85 percent of the school's drinking fountains were tainted with high levels of lead.

Lead levels in other fountains appear to have dropped between 1992 and 2002, but in each case those fountains exceeded EPA limits in this year's round of testing. The fountain with the highest lead levels in the recent tests -- 310 parts per billion -- was one in Room 12 that had been replaced in the early 1990s and tested just below the EPA limit in 1992.

English couldn't explain the erratic results. The same Bellevue company conducting this year's tests -- Economic & Engineering Services -- also handled the districtwide tests in 1990, but English said he doesn't know who conducted the limited tests in 2000 and 2001, or what process was used.

Schmitz Park, built in 1962, is getting new pipes this summer as recommended in a district report 11 years ago, but English could not say why the work was not done earlier. "For whatever reason, no further work was done other than the flushing program," he said.

In May, Schmitz Park teacher Paula Tortorice wrote a letter to the School Board, expressing her dismay that the water issues were not resolved earlier.

"I am extremely disturbed by the lack of attention to our school's drinking water issues," wrote Tortorice, whose three children attended the school. "Hasn't this problem gone on long enough?"

Schmitz Park PTA President Carol Pennie said she heard nothing about water problems at the school until last fall. Her daughter, now 9, routinely filled her water bottle from school drinking fountains for several years, said Pennie, who's angry that the district did not replace the water pipes sooner.

"When you have so many children at risk like that, I think the public agency needs to step up to the plate and do the correct thing," she said.

Rainier View Elementary

Located in a low-income neighborhood on the city's southern edge, Rainier View Elementary fared much better than other district schools in the 1990 tests.

All but a few fountains at the 43-year-old school registered below EPA limits when tested 14 years ago. Limited sampling over the next three years, however, showed that eight fountains were close to or slightly over the EPA limit. None was replaced.

One of those was in the nurse's room, whose fountain had lead levels of 21 ppb when it was tested in 1993. The fountain had a reading of 33 ppb on a first-draw sample in the recent tests.

A fountain on the west side of the library also tested at 21 ppb in 1992. It had the highest reading in the school -- 84 ppb -- on the recent tests, which found that 82 percent of fountains exceeded the limit at 19 locations tested around the school.

Asked why the fountains weren't replaced earlier, English said: "You got me. I haven't got a clue."

English said he is looking into why a fountain, likely in Room 12 at the school, was not assessed in the recent tests. An outlet in the custodian's office is not being tested, he said, since children have no access to it.

"If it's going to be used as a fountain, it has to be tested," he said.

Carleen Greene, a third-grade teacher who's worked at the 300-student school since 1998, said she didn't know about the water tests in the early 1990s until recent stories on the district's lead problems.

"Our water's always been a little bit yellowish-brown, but then we were told the pipes can make it turn that color but that doesn't mean it's dirty," she said.

A few years ago, students complained about the water having a strong odor "almost like rotting fish," Greene recalled. The school's former custodian flushed the fountains and the smell went away, but Greene never drank the school water again.

Teachers began contributing to an annual fund to provide bottled water for the staff lounge, but students continued to drink from the fountains. Greene said she had no idea there were possible safety issues with the water.

"I was really surprised that they had all this testing and then from what I've gathered, nothing was done about it until this came up again," she said. "I'm pretty shocked."

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