Children are returning to Orleans Parish public schools this month without the water filters to screen lead from drinking water that school officials promised to install last year.

“The lack of urgency is appalling,” said Gail Fendley, executive director of Lead Safe Louisiana.

Thousands of students have passed through school district-owned buildings in the two years since officials first promised to test school water for lead, she said.

No one knows whether New Orleans schools have high lead levels in their water systems. Orleans Parish schools tested for lead in drinking fountains in 1989, shortly after the federal Lead Contamination Control Act became law. But it’s not clear if they’ve been tested since. Last year, asked when the district last tested its water for lead, a school district spokeswoman said, “We have no records associated with the Orleans Parish School Board conducting testing of that nature.” 

”The lack of urgency is appalling.”—Gail Fendley, Lead Safe Louisiana

The Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans must check its water system for lead, and those tests have shown it is in compliance with federal guidelines. But lead levels can spike when underground pipes are shaken during road construction or when nearby lead service lines are replaced. The water agency has been criticized for failing to inform residents when nearby projects pose that risk.

On the heels of Flint, Michigan’s lead-in-water scandal, the state-run Recovery School District and Orleans Parish public schools announced in 2016 that they would test school drinking water for lead. A few months later, they decided to forego it.

Instead, the districts decided to install filters on drinking fountains and kitchen taps, which they concluded was a safer move. But that hasn’t happened yet either.

The Orleans Parish school district appeared to be making progress last fall, when it allotted money for filters and put the project out to bid. But problems with the winning contractor’s qualifications sent the project back out to bid.

The district selected a contractor early this year, but they still have not signed a contract.

The delay concerned Fendley.

“Parents should take the initiative and insist on safe drinking water, bottled if necessary,” she said. “All children should be tested.”

A switch from testing to filters

The process started in July 2016. Local officials teamed up to announce they would test school water for lead.

School officials commissioned a plan to test 10 schools for $24,336. If any positive results were returned, then they would test like-schools and fixtures.

Then-superintendent of the Recovery School District, Patrick Dobard, shared the plans with the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans in August 2016.

According to emails and documents reviewed by The Lens, the water agency wanted school district administrators to allow more lead in the water before taking a fixture out of service.

”We have no records associated with the Orleans Parish School Board conducting testing of that nature.”—Dominique Ellis, spokeswoman, Orleans Parish Schools

The water system uses a threshold of 15 parts per billion. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends taking a school drinking fountain out of service if it shows more than 20 parts per billion of lead.

But there is no safe level of lead, and children are especially susceptible to lead poisoning.

The schools initially set a threshold of 10 parts per billion. After the Sewerage and Water Board questioned their reasoning, it was raised to 15.

Both levels are substantially higher than the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation to shut off any school water fountain with a lead level higher than one part per billion.

The Sewerage & Water Board wanted to take its own samples, causing the schools’ testing consultant to wonder if they would end up with dueling test results.

But school officials decided to scrap the plan altogether and go with what experts said was the safest and most cost-effective option — water filters.

Officials said filters would be installed last year

The day after The Lens reported on the aborted plan to test water, officials from the RSD and the Orleans Parish school district told school leaders that filters would be installed in the fall of 2017.

The filters appeared to be on track. In September, the Orleans Parish school district selected a filter company — EcoWater Systems — and made plans to test the water after installation to ensure the filters were working. In October, the school board allotted $800,000 to install them in all district-owned buildings.

But the bidding had to start over because the district decided the filters offered by the companies weren’t properly certified — not for lead, but for microbes that could enter pipes during a citywide boil-water alert.

The district wanted to protect against the microbes to prevent school closures during the advisories.

The district re-bid the project and again awarded the bid to EcoWater in February.

But the contract still has not been signed, Orleans schools spokeswoman Dominique Ellis told The Lens last week.

Once it’s inked, water filter installation should begin within weeks, Ellis said.

Fendley just wants to see the district take action.

“If they do want to go the most conservative route, that’s OK,” Fendley said, referring to filter installation. “But let’s do it.”

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...