Lead and radon raise concerns in Lents schools

Portland Public Schools is distributing bottled drinking water at their schools. Now, it turns out, they’re concerned about radon gas, also …

Here at Kelly Elementary School in the Lents neighborhood, a 2012 survey showed that the water from one drinking fountain tested at almost 12 times the amount of lead deemed safe.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton

The concern about high levels of lead in drinking water at two Portland Public School (PPS) District facilities ignited a firestorm of controversy regarding water safety at all of the district’s schools.

PPS Superintendent Carole Smith, along with most of their School Board members, held a special session before a community meeting, on May 31 at East Portland’s Creston Elementary School, to assuage the fears of parents and staff members.

Sitting with two of the district’s board members, PPS Superintendent Carole Smith holds a special session at Creston Elementary School, which was one of the schools at which lead found in drinking water.

“We are here for a community meeting, talking about the situation with lead testing of the water in our schools,” Smith told East Portland News. “We’re talking about our plan, going forward, for doing lead-testing in the schools.

“The situation here at Creston showed an elevated level of lead at the fountain, which was remediated, but there were eight days between the time that it was known to be elevated and the time that it was fixed, and it was not shut off in that interval,” Smith continued. “People were not communicated with, including myself.

“Part of what we’re looking at here is our plan for understanding what happened, and how we ensure that this does not happen again,” said Smith.

Joe Galati, principal of an East Portland elementary school, stocks water for his students.

On Friday, May 27, PPS procured a reported 1 million bottles of water, and over the weekend distributed it to schools.

“We’re testing everything, system-wide, the summer,” Smith added.

What PPS officials didn’t count on, on the afternoon of the community meeting, was Willamette Week releasing information about a PPS study of lead facility water, with measurements taken in 2001, 2002 and 2012.

East Portland News obtained a copy of the study, dated February 27, 2015.

At Kelly Elementary School in Lents, out of about 160 sinks and fountains documented, 23 tested “clear”. Troubling to some parents was that one of the 2012 test results showed the lead level to be 174 parts per billion; the federal safety level is 15 parts per billion.

At Lent School, about 12% of the sinks and water fountains tested over the years were “clear” of lead.

In Lent Elementary School, out of about 165 sinks and fountains tested, 20 tested “clear” – but none in the school tested with as high a lead level as found at Kelly.

What remains uncertain is how, or if, the district repaired drinking water fountains. Thus there was a high level of concern, and sometimes acrimony expressed by parents and teachers, during the community meeting.

During the special board meeting, Smith announced that the district would bring in an “outside investigator” to look into why “staff actions that resulted in a delay of shutting down the water and a failure to report that to the superintendent and the community.”

Those investigating lead in school water should be chosen by someone other than the superintendent, says PPS Board Member Steve Buel.

PPS Board Member Steve Buel commented, “The Superintendent should not be involved in choosing the person or team to investigate water safety” – a remark that drew a round of applause from the audience.

At the start of the community meeting, during her introduction, Smith said the board had approved system-wide testing for lead, based on discussions about the situation in Flint, Michigan.

Dozens of parents and staff members line up to express their concerns and ask questions during the community meeting.

One of a parade of parents and staff members asking questions was a mother, who identified herself as a David Douglas School District parent, said her daughter attends the deaf and hard of hearing program at Creston.

“I’m concerned because my daughter’s health is failing, and now I have serious questions about if the water here has caused her to have serious health problems including renal failure this year,” she said.

Questioning how often lead-blocking water filters are changed is Portland Association of Teachers president Gwen Sullivan.

Portland Association of Teachers president Gwen Sullivan also stepped up to comment.

“Having [lead levels in water testing] protocols in place is news to me because I didn’t know about it and I’ve been teaching since 1991,” Smith asserted.

“There is a question about the filters being changed annually, or sooner if they are plugged, this is inaccurate,” Sullivan said. “We’ve had plugged up filters, and have had difficulty getting the district to replace the plugged up filters.

“Being accurate about how often they’re changed is important,” Sullivan added.

Parents from all over the school district share their concerns; some call for Superintendent Smith’s resignation.

From across the district, parents testified at the community meeting, and some asked about lead testing – and retesting. Others asked if the school system would pay for kids’ medical bills resulting from lead exposure.

On June 2, Smith put PPS Chief Operating Officer Tony Magliano and Environmental Manager Andy Fridley on leave Thursday as the district continues to investigate elevated levels of lead in school water.

“The Board and I know that mistakes were made and I encourage this investigation into our systems and protocols as well as a related personnel review,” announced Smith.

Lent School will again be tested for elevated levels of radon.

Now, radon …
On June 1, PPS revealed testing for radon, a radioactive gas, and reported its presence in 120 rooms district-wide.

It showed that Lent School was one of the six schools tested that had radon levels above the Environmental Protection Agency’s standard level.

Follow-up tests will begin June 4.

© 2016 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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