Orleans schools drop plans to install antimicrobial filters, focusing on lead

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Marta Jewson / The Lens

Drinking fountains at Edgar Harney Elementary School.

The Orleans Parish school district is scaling back an ambitious plan to install lead and antimicrobial water filters at all of its schools. According to an email sent to charter school leaders this month, the district has decided to abandon the antimicrobial filters — installing only lead filters.

Emails obtained by The Lens last month showed the district’s original plan hit a snag — the antimicrobial filter used in the systems required water pressure much higher than state law requires the city’s water utility to provide.

The water pressure issue meant the district had to install expensive booster pumps, and in some cases run new electricity to them, to ensure the filters didn’t impede the flow of water. Because of the problem, some partially installed filters sat unconnected for weeks or more, possibly unbeknownst to parents and school employees. And some schools reported low water flow after filters were installed, which can become a sanitary concern.

“The booster pumps had the potential to cause damage to water fountains and increase ongoing maintenance cost to schools,” a spokeswoman for the district wrote in an email. “The need for booster pumps can be avoided by focusing on lead filtration.”

The unanticipated problem appears to have delayed installation, which began late last summer after already being delayed a year. It increased costs by 10 percent over original $800,000 budget and meant that dozens of filters across city schools hadn’t actually been hooked up. The district also shifted to install filters at newer schools first because they were more likely to have in-house booster pumps, though older schools are more likely to have lead plumbing.

Lead is a neurotoxin that can be especially damaging to young children, causing brain damage and developmental delays. The antimicrobial filters weren’t part of the district’s original plan. They were added later to account for the city’s frequent boil-water advisories. Those advisories have cancelled school in the past or forced them to ship in bottled water and bagged lunches.

The district doesn’t know if school water systems are contaminated with lead, but after Michigan officials were indicted in July of 2016 for the lead crisis in Flint, Michigan, New Orleans school officials promised to test for the substance. That never happened.

The district decided to install filters instead but didn’t get around to requesting contractor proposals until 2017. The first filters were finally installed last August.  

In a September email, Orleans schools Senior Operations Officer Tiffany Delcour floated the idea of switching to only lead filters. But another employee worried that removing the antimicrobial element would cause an issue with the contract since it had already been awarded and signed.

“I understand that the antimicrobial filter is the problem with the flow rate, but since we specifically asked for that feature in the [request for proposals], won’t we have a problem with removing it?” Sue Robertson wrote. “Since we had so many protests and questions about the bid award, I am concerned.”

Delcour replied: “I’m talking with multiple lawyers about it and using their guidance. Happy to talk about it offline.”

The change in plans was announced to charter leaders in an early June email. The “update” states the district has installed 313 filters in city schools and is “continuing to make significant progress towards installing lead water filters at all schools.”

It’s unclear how many schools that covers, but on May 2, district Communications Director Tania Dall said 37 schools had filters installed, about half the schools in the district.

“Of the schools that have received water filters, 20 have filters not connected to water fountains due to low water pressure,” Dall said at the time. 

In an email Wednesday, she wrote that eliminating the booster pumps could reduce the project’s overall cost, potentially below its original budget.

The announcement to charter leaders acknowledged the water-pressure problem.

“During the installation process we have encountered a consistent issue where the water pressure at many schools does not reach the level these filtration systems require and previously the district planned to install booster pumps as needed.”

“Now, the district will shift away from this filter/booster pump approach and instead install an adjusted version of the filter that will ensure proper lead filtration, but can operate at a lower water pressure,” the announcement states. “This change will help ensure these filtration systems remain functional and will also decrease maintenance costs.”

The change comes as the district approaches six weeks to its self-imposed deadline of Aug. 1 to have all filters installed.

Update: The story has been updated to include information from the Orleans Parish school district. (June 13, 2019)

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