An EcoWater filter at a water fountain in Warren Easton High School's cafeteria.

The NOLA Public Schools district has nearly completed installing filters to remove lead from its school water fountains, but its project to filter water flowing from school kitchen taps — used for cleaning schools and cooking students’ meals — is just beginning.

The lead filter projects stemmed from a 2016 promise to test school water for lead, announced the same day that six public officials in Michigan were indicted over the lead-in-water public health crisis in Flint. The district decided instead to purchase filters and planned to install the fountain and kitchen filters simultaneously. But the projects were separated after initial bids were rejected in November 2017.

Minnesota-based EcoWater won the drinking-fountain contract last year. And the project got underway in August 2018. It was stalled after school officials and contractors discovered that the microbial filters further reduced water pressure, rendering some fountains unusable. Those filters require water pressure about four times greater than the city water agency is required to provide. 

The district determined older schools, which generally lack an internal pressure stabilizing pump, may need booster pumps at individual fountains. That was going to require additional time and money. The district ultimately decided to keep the lead filters but scrap the microbial filters.

Last month, as students were returning to school, district officials said the drinking fountain project was nearly complete

With the drinking fountain project wrapping up, kitchen water was the district’s next priority. It’s unclear when exactly kitchen filter installation could begin. 

“We’re currently working with Ecowater and other vendors to understand how other school systems have approached this installation and any issues or problems they encountered during the implementation process,” said an email, sent by district spokeswoman Ambria Washington and attributed to NOLA Public Schools, in early August. 

On Wednesday, district Communications Director Tania Dall emailed a statement from NOLA Public Schools explaining the district plans to advertise for bids in the fall.

The district doesn’t know if it has a lead problem. A spokesman for New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board said that water leaving its Carrollton water treatment plant does not contain dangerous levels of lead. However, lead can leach into water if it travels through lead pipes or if lead pipes are disturbed by road work. The city’s water agency says it treats the water to prevent lead pipes from degrading. 

Still, advocates like Gail Fendley, the executive director of Lead Safe Louisiana, say all school water sources should be protected because parents count on schools to be safe for kids. 

When The Lens informed Fendley that the drinking fountain filter project was nearly done last month, she immediately inquired about the kitchen filters. 

“As a community we all expect schools to be safe keepers of our children,” Fendley said in an email. “Until all the water fixtures found in school kitchens, bathrooms, locker rooms, classrooms, ice makers, cold water faucets, water bottle filters and bubblers or drinking fountains are declared lead free by independent testing, our children continue to possibly be subject to the proven hazard of lead poisoning.”

Drinking fountain filters were installed in district-owned buildings, the vast majority of which are occupied by charter schools. The general arrangement the district has with charter schools is that the charter groups are responsible for maintenance while the district takes care of major building repairs. 

The district paid for the installation of the filters, but charter schools are responsible for replacing them when needed. The district reminded charter groups of that in an email to school leaders last week that also had detailed instructions on how to order replacement filters. 

“As a reminder when a water filter needs to be replaced the system will disconnect the water fountains ability to provide drinking water until the filter is replaced, therefore it is crucial to ensure you have replacements filters pre-ordered to ensure you have no disruption of water fountain services.”

A pack of three replacement filters costs $103.

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 to New Orleans in the fall of 2014 after covering education for the St. Cloud Times in Minnesota. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with majors in journalism and social welfare and a concentration in educational policy studies.