The discovery of high lead levels in drinking water at 13 Tacoma public schools has prompted concern among neighboring school districts as well.
Although testing school water for lead is voluntary in Washington, many Pierce County school districts say they plan to do testing in light of recent developments in Tacoma.
Officials in the Bethel, Clover Park, Eatonville, Fife, Puyallup, Steilacoom, University Place and White River school districts said they either plan to initiate new testing or already have begun.
The Franklin Pierce School District tested representative samples from all its schools in February and posted the results on its website in April.
University Place tested its schools three times during the 1990s. Deputy Superintendent Jeff Chamberlin described the testing as “minimal,” with only a few samples drawn at four schools.
He said University Place has mostly newer schools, and while that doesn’t eliminate the problem, it makes it less likely that lead will be found in school water in the district.
Lakewood’s Clover Park schools underwent testing in 1992, after the federal Environmental Protection Agency identified potential sources of lead contamination in 1988.
The testing gave Clover Park schools a clean bill of health and no further action was taken, according to Superintendent Debbie LeBeau.
Some school districts haven’t tested for lead in water since the 1990s
School district officials say they look first to their providers for information about water that flows into school buildings; smaller districts, especially, rely on water quality reports from their water purveyors.
Public water systems must test water regularly for lead and other contaminants and report their findings publicly under federal EPA rules.
The Puyallup School District, for example, has eight water purveyors, and district officials receive regular reports from each. They include the cities of Puyallup, Milton and Tacoma, and five smaller water companies. (Firgrove Mutual, Fruitland Mutual, Mt. View-Edgewood, Rainier View and Summit).
Superintendent-Principal Scott Hubbard, who oversees the one-school Carbonado School District, said his district relies on the town of Carbonado, which publishes an annual report on drinking water.
He said the town chooses locations for testing, but he plans to talk with the town’s water department head to see how the locations are chosen.
Facilities in Sumner School District have been updated, so there is less concern about lead in the plumbing, spokeswoman Sarah Gillespie said.
“None of our facilities use lead connectors that have been identified as factors in high lead levels,” she said. “Because of this, we don’t typically water-test school facilities.”
The Dieringer School District near Lake Tapps relies on testing by Bonney Lake Water, school Superintendent Judy Neumeier-Martinson said.
“Additionally, our schools are relatively new (1992-2005) and were not constructed with lead pipes,” she said. “With no concerns from the source, Bonney Lake Water, and no lead pipes in the school facilities, we do not test.”
Steilacoom Superintendent Kathi Weight said her district would test its six school sites. But she added: “With all of our school modernizations, it is highly unlikely that we will find any areas of concern.”
The Orting School District was unable to provide information by Friday about its school water.
School testing is voluntary in Washington
Some districts already have done water tests:
▪ The Parkland-based Franklin Pierce School District tested in February during midwinter break at all of its schools. Two water sources were tested at each school.
All samples tested below the EPA-set standard for schools of 20 parts per billion. Two were close to that mark — the kitchens at Collins and Brookdale elementary schools — but second-tier testing showed they were within range.
▪ In February, the Peninsula School District reported elevated lead levels from a fixture at each of two schools, Kopachuck Middle School and Voyager Elementary School.
Both schools are served by a district-owned well.
Since 1997, the well system and the schools it serves have undergone regular monitoring for lead. That’s because district-owned wells are subject to the same rules that apply to all public water systems.
District-owned wells serve Evergreen, Purdy and Vaughn elementary schools, Key Peninsula Middle School and Peninsula High School.
Those schools “passed” in the most recent round of testing, said Kathy Weymiller, director of community outreach for Peninsula schools. Nevertheless, she said, the district is taking another look at fixtures that tested above 15 ppb for lead.
At Kopachuck and Voyager, faulty fixtures were replaced, and the water retested at well below EPA standards. Water at the schools will undergo more frequent testing until multiple “clean” samples are returned.
In addition to district-owned wells, the Peninsula School District has several other water suppliers, including the city of Gig Harbor, Washington Water, Stroh’s Water Co. and Rainier View Water Co.
“Although our current testing meets EPA, state and local health department guidelines, I anticipate we will be responsive as guidelines for best practices evolve,” Weymiller said.
▪ In 2014, the Eatonville School District tested water in two of its schools, Weyerhaeuser Elementary and Columbia Crest A-STEM Academy.
Because the schools rely on district-managed wells, they must be tested regularly. The most recent tests showed the water was well under 15 ppb. As an extra precaution, the district ordered new testing at its five schools.
▪ In 2004, the Puyallup School District tested for lead and copper, and officials say they have addressed problems that were uncovered.
According to 2004 reports from Nowicki & Associates, which is the company hired to conduct the Puyallup school tests, most facilities had lead and copper levels below EPA standards.
Other locations — including Firgrove, Meeker, Northwood, Riverside, Spinning, Sunrise, Waller Road, Wildwood and Woodland elementary schools, along with Ferrucci Junior High — had drinking fountains or sinks that exceeded EPA lead standards on initial testing of “first-draw” samples, after water sat overnight in pipes.
All fell below standards during follow-up tests, where water was allowed to flow for a short time before being collected.
One location at Karshner Elementary reported high lead levels after flushing the system. The problem was traced to an old faucet that was suspected to contain lead, so it was replaced.
Maintenance crews were charged with investigating problem spots around the district, doing extended flushing of water lines after weekends and holidays and changing out old fixtures that may have contained lead.
State proposal to require testing has been on hold since 2009
Tacoma began voluntarily testing water in some elementary schools as early as 2010, and in 2012, put together a plan for more systematic testing that began in 2013.
Tests performed over the past three years turned up high levels of lead in water at 13 schools. The school district is investigating why those results remained unreported to district authorities and the public.
Tacoma Public Schools is retesting every fixture in every district school and hopes to complete that testing this month. Going forward, Tacoma has promised to develop a plan to ensure all schools are tested on a regular basis.