The NOLA Public Schools district’s yearslong project to protect students from lead in water continues to inch along. While the district has nearly finished installing lead filters in school drinking fountains, it hasn’t yet inked a contract for lead-removal filtering on kitchen water.

As of last week, 841 drinking fountain filter systems had been installed across 84 schools, according to district officials. About two dozen of those filters across three schools needed further work before they could be connected. Some were expected to be finished by last Friday, just before the district’s holiday break.

Those remaining “required more labor intensive repairs before the filters that were installed could be connected to the water fountain,” according to the district. “These repairs required the water to be turned off to the building for at least 24 hours.” 

Those schools are Dwight D. Eisenhower Elementary School, run by InspireNOLA, and William J. Fischer Elementary School, which houses Rosenwald Collegiate Academy. The Village de L’est Elementary School, which is unoccupied, also needed additional work. One of Einstein Charter Schools’ elementary schools will return to that facility over winter break when extensive asbestos remediation is complete. 

Water pressure issues plagued the district’s progress on the long-awaited filters last year. As the district slowly discovered its chosen filter system required water pressure three to four times higher than the city’s water agency is required to provide. The solution, sped up in part due to a seventh-grader’s over-the-counter water test, would have required expensive booster pumps. As a result, several schools had installed filters that sat unconnected for weeks, and it was unclear if staff were aware.

The district scrapped the antimicrobial filter component, meant to keep students safe during boil water advisories, because it required the highest water pressure. Instead, the district installed sediment and lead-removal filters. 

The lead filter project stemmed from a 2016 promise to test school water for lead. That was announced the same day that six public officials in Michigan were indicted over the lead-in-water public health crisis in Flint. Later, the district decided instead to purchase filters, at first planning 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 stalled after school officials and contractors discovered that the microbial filters further reduced water pressure, rendering some fountains unusable. 

The district determined that 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. Officials ultimately decided to keep the lead filters but scrap the microbial filters.

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

Kitchen Filters

Now, district officials must decide if they want to install lead-removal filters on every kitchen sink individually, called a “point-of-use” system, or install a filter on the kitchen’s water supply line, called a “point-of-entry” system. 

There are pros and cons to both. 

“The District has engaged with MMG Inc. to help evaluate the types of filtration systems available and the constraints kitchen filtration may provide in order to ensure the method selected does not have unexpected implementation issues,” the district statement said. 

A point-of-entry system requires an “intrusive installation process and requires the creation of a filtered water reservoir to provide enough pre-filtered water to meet peak demand needs for water.”

However, many filtration systems are designed to work with cold water, like those on the district’s drinking fountains. And point-of-entry systems don’t have to deal with hot water at kitchen taps. 

A point-of-use system requires a “less intrusive installation process but needs to be able to filter water at high temperatures and allow for mobility of systems that are not fixed (pot filler etc.)”

As of Friday, the district was still considering its options and may use a variety of them as kitchen equipment and placement varies across the district’s 80-plus schools.

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...