Plans to test school drinking water for lead were abandoned after water board raised questions

Print More


After repeated delays, the Orleans Parish school district now estimates that lead filter installation will continue into next school year.

Last fall, New Orleans school leaders announced a proactive plan to test drinking water at their schools. Then the Sewerage and Water board got involved, questioning the testing method and arguing for a higher allowable level of lead. School officials agreed to raise the allowable level, but they later abandoned the testing plan. They decided to install filters, which is supposed to happen this fall.

joshme17 / Flickr

New Orleans school officials abandoned plans to test water fountains and faucets for lead after the Sewerage and Water Board argued they should allow more lead in the water before taking action, according to documents obtained by The Lens.

The water agency said it wanted to collect samples alongside the company hired by the school districts. That led the head of the company to raise the possibility of dueling test results.

Paul Lo, president and senior environmental scientist of Materials Management Group, emailed administrators at the Recovery School District and the Orleans Parish School Board to lay out a few different scenarios.

If his company detected lead but the Sewerage and Water Board didn’t, “definitely a challenge from SWB to MMG’s data will happen,” he wrote.

And if his company didn’t detect lead but the Sewerage and Water Board did? “I am not sure if SWB will share this data.”

The samples were supposed to be collected last fall, but that never happened. Instead, the school districts decided to install water filters.

“The two districts together have made the decision to take preventative action at all schools regardless of their lead levels as opposed to testing each school,” Laura Hawkins, the Recovery School District’s deputy chief of staff, told The Lens by email.

Officials with the two school districts have said they made that decision based on the advice of experts.

That’s not the full story, according to emails and documents reviewed by The Lens. The school districts changed course after the Sewerage and Water Board questioned the testing method, the lab that would analyze the results, and the lead level that would cause them to stop using water from a particular water fountain or faucet.

Patrick Dobard was the superintendent of the Recovery School District at that time.

“I guess there was some feedback from the conversations that included the testing would be difficult since there was not a lot of agreement on what the action level would be,” he said.

Marc Edwards, a professor of environmental and water resources engineering at Virginia Tech University, said, “To some extent, their argument has merit. What’s the point of finding problems that already exist?”

“Here’s the thing about testing in schools,” he said. “You can’t undo the harm that’s been done. You can only prevent future harm.”

That’s why he recommends remediation — filters, for example.

But more than a year after the water would have been tested, the filters have not been installed. The Orleans Parish School Board didn’t ask for bids until this summer. They were opened in September.

After The Lens first reported on the decision to shift from tests to filters, the two school districts told school leaders the filters would be installed this fall.

“It sounds like they’ve got a good plan,” Edwards said. “And hopefully it can be implemented soon.”

School districts promise to be proactive

It all began the day officials in Flint, Michigan, were indicted for crimes related to lead poisoning in the city’s water. The Recovery School District and the Orleans Parish School Board announced they would test school water for lead.

Louisiana law says any facility where children are cared for, including daycares, must be “maintained free of lead contamination.” That includes paint, soil and water.

The law doesn’t appear to require water tests. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency “strongly recommends” schools test drinking water for lead.

In August 2016, a couple weeks after the announcement, Dobard emailed Cedric Grant, who was then the head of the Sewerage and Water Board, to tell him testing would start in two weeks.

“If any results are found above the EPA’s action level for lead in water we will be prepared to supply schools with alternative drinking water and hand washing stations,” Dobard wrote.

His message was forwarded to Vincent Fouchi Jr., the Sewerage and Water Board’s chief of operations. He offered to help.

“We have a vested interest in ensuring that your lead testing program is successful, and that the data generated from your program is accurate and representative,” Fouchi wrote.

He wanted to collect duplicate samples to analyze. Others at the water board agreed.

Tiffany Delcour, the Recovery School District’s head of operations, sent a copy of the testing plan and they all agreed to a conference call.

Sewerage and Water Board questions testing plan

A few days before the call, Fouchi circulated a copy of the testing plan with his questions and notes.

Ten schools were to be tested, a mix of buildings built before and after Hurricane Katrina, at a total cost of $24,336. Fouchi asked how the schools had been picked.

The plan called for uniform testing at every school, including a drinking fountain on each floor, the two primary kitchen faucets and the service tie-in to the facility. Fouchi thought school administrators should decide which water fixtures were used the most at each site.

Some of the water board’s objections appear to deal with concerns that the testing would examine lead levels in the pipes leading to the schools. The water system is required by law to conduct its own tests for lead and other contaminants.

Fouchi asked why the company planned to take three water samples. He thought they should use two.

The testing plan initially called for shutting off a water fixture if it tested at 10 parts per billion or higher. “What standard is this?” Fouchi wrote.

A colleague at the water board suggested testing all faucets and kitchen taps in schools built before Hurricane Katrina. He didn’t think newly constructed schools would need testing.

Edwards said that’s not exactly true. Many faucets contain brass, and “we were adding lead to brass through January 2014,” he said.

Edwards said a lead level as low as 1 part per billion in a school drinking fountain should trigger an intervention. That’s what the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends.

“It’s practically impossible,” he said, for fixtures in buildings built before January 2014 to have lead levels below that.

The conference call on Aug. 16, 2016 included representatives of the water board, the school districts and the testing company.

Ann Wilson, chief of environmental affairs for the water agency, took notes. They describe disagreement between her agency and the school districts over what lead level should trigger intervention.

Without any test results, Wilson wrote, the use of filters is “strictly speculative.”

The initial testing plan said a water fountain or faucet should be taken out of service if it tested at 10 parts per billion or higher. The water agency said it should be twice as high, in line with EPA standards for school fixtures.

“After being asked to review the methodology proposed by the School Board’s contractor, S&WB recommended using the EPA’s methodology for lead testing in water at schools,” city spokesman Erin Burns wrote in an email to The Lens.

“Both the two-draw method and 20 ppb [parts per billion] action level is in accordance with the EPA guidelines for testing in schools,” she wrote.

Adrienne Katner, a principal investigator with the New Orleans Lead Exposure Assessment for Drinking Water Project and an assistant professor at Louisiana State University’s School of Public Health, has criticized the EPA’s threshold, saying it has no medical basis.

Edwards has overseen lead testing in Flint and other large-scale water studies. He said “the ground is shifting beneath our feet” regarding what level should cause alarm.

“The worst lead in water tends to occur in schools and in daycares because this water sits for long periods,” causing lead from fixtures and pipes to seep into the water, he said.

Children are particularly vulnerable to lead poisoning. Research has shown they can be harmed even at low levels that in the past didn’t raise concern.

“That’s probably part of the angst that those emails capture,” Edwards said.

“You can never have 100 percent confidence” based on a water sample, he said. “It’s like Russian roulette … Chunks of lead fall out sometimes. They don’t fall out other times.”

That’s why filters, which can remove 99 percent of lead, can be more cost-effective, he said. Katner agreed.

The people on the conference call discussed an action level as low as 5 parts per billion, which two water board employees questioned.

Wilson wrote in her notes that the testing company and the school district “will review action limit for lead.”

Testing company raises questions about dueling test results

Three days after the meeting, Lo sent his message detailing the possibility of dueling test results.

Unless his company and the water agency coordinated their sample collection, he wrote, “there will be dispute over sample collection, sample preservation, analytical methodology” and quality control.

If his company detected lead and the water board did not, he said they could expect a challenge. (It’s not clear from his email whether he was referring to any lead in the water or a concerning level.)

If the Sewerage and Water Board found lead but his company didn’t, Lo wondered if the water board would share its results. If they both found lead, he anticipated disagreement over which test result was reliable — especially if one was above the action level.

The only case in which he didn’t anticipate a problem is if neither his company nor the water agency detected lead. “Everyone is happy,” he wrote.

Delcour responded to him and her counterpart at the Orleans Parish School Board.

“So if I understand the information provided then we should change the lead level that triggers our alternative water response plan to 15 ppb from the previously understood 10 ppb?” she asked.

They set up a phone call to discuss.

At some point in the next week, the Recovery School District updated the testing plan, increasing the threshold to 15 parts per billion.

After delay, school districts switch to water filters

According to the revised testing plan, the samples were to be collected in September and October 2016.

That November, the districts still appeared to be making plans to test.

But at some point between then and April, the school districts decided to install water filters instead.

Dominique Ellis, a spokeswoman for the Orleans Parish School Board, wrote in an email that employees of both school districts talked with experts. “Some of the feedback from these conversations included that testing would be difficult since there is little agreement on action levels,” she wrote.

“Over the next several months, OPSB and RSD facility staff researched and reviewed various options” until they settled on water filters, she wrote.

She wouldn’t allow us to interview officials, including Orleans schools Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr., to learn more about the decision to drop testing.

Edwards agreed with the decision to install filters. Lead can be dislodged from pipes when they’re shaken during roadwork or after a change in water treatment.

“How many times would you have to test it to know this is not a hazard?” he asked.

The Orleans Parish School Board is overseeing the filter installation, which includes all schools in district-owned facilities, the majority of which are independent charters.

Schools that are housed in private buildings such as churches can ask to be added to the project; several already have.

Drinking fountains and kitchen taps will get a three-filter system that removes particles and lead. The system must be able to keep the water safe during “boil water” advisories, which occur occasionally when the water board experiences a power outage that drops water pressure.

The school district received two bids for the filters and plans to select Ecowater Systems, Ellis said. The district consulted with that company before writing the bid specifications.

“As soon as the installation timeline is established, OPSB will begin planning and communicating with schools across the city,” she wrote.

Edwards praised the district’s plan to install filters. “The sooner this gets fixed,” he said, “the better.”

Help us report this story     Report an error    
The Lens' donors and partners may be mentioned or have a stake in the stories we cover.