ITHACA, NY – New information released by the Ithaca City School District has revealed the problem of high lead concentration in the water may not be limited to Caroline and Enfield schools.

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Prompted by the lead issue in Caroline and Enfield schools, the district had begun “comprehensive review of historical water sampling data has included other ICSD buildings as well,” according to a letter sent via email to parents by ICSD Superintendent Luvelle Brown.

Our investigation has revealed that the most recent water testing results for school buildings other than Caroline and Enfield is more than 10 years old. Some of the sampling results from August 2005 exceeded the action level,” the letter continues.

The lack of testing is not necessarily abnormal. The EPA does not require schools that are on the public water system to test their water at all, although they do strongly recommend it. The water in Enfield and Caroline was tested routinely because those schools use well water, according to Brown.

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What is abnormal is that many ICSD schools tested above the action level for lead contamination in the water, but we have no idea if any action was taken. It’s possible that 2005 school officials took action — it’s also possible that they did nothing at all.

Unfortunately, there is little in the way of information about why the water was tested in 2005 and whether or not any actions were taken. According to Brown, those actions predate the tenures of the entirety of the current school board, as well as Brown’s appointment as superintendent.

The ICSD action plan

In a letter delivered to district parents via email, Brown outlined the steps that the district is taking going forward:

“Immediately, we will begin a thorough updated water testing and evaluation process in all district facilities. With an abundance of caution, while evaluating our buildings’ water systems we will provide bottled water to staff and students. Bottled water will continue to be provided in each building until we have verified that the water meets applicable environmental standards. Moving forward, we will:

  • Sample the water in all of our school buildings for lead and copper levels;
  • Turn off drinking water sources in all buildings;
  • Monitor the usage of hand-washing sinks that exceed the 15 ppb action level;
  • Share both new sampling data and historical sampling data as we receive it;
  • Develop plans that address water quality management;
  • Investigate and evaluate our past sampling procedures;
  • Investigate the communication breakdown that resulted in the delayed notification of action level exceedances. To the extent permitted by confidentiality rules, the results of this investigation will be made available to the public in the coming months.
  • Continue to collaborate with the Tompkins County Health Department, TST BOCES, health care providers, and parent groups; and
  • Secure a third-party to serve as project leader for the evaluation and management of action steps.”

Brown said that as of this afternoon, all drinking water sources had been turned off across the district, and bottled water had been delivered to the schools.

“Safe drinking water is a necessity for our students and staff. I promise openness and transparency as we navigate this complex issue facing our school community,” Brown also wrote.

The results of the 2005 tests show lead numbers that aren’t quite as extreme as those seen in recent tests at Caroline and Enfield.

However, almost every school had at least three water sources that tested above the action level — most had many more. Some, like Fall Creek, had more that tested sources above the action level than below.

Most of the samples that tested above the action level were somewhere in the 30-50 ppb range. There were a few outliers, including 330 ppb in a Fall Creek Water Cooler, 448 ppb in an Enfield drinking fountain.

Links to results of the individual tests can be found on the ICSD website.

Lingering questions

Brown also addressed a few lingering questions about lead levels at Caroline and Enfield.

The Ithaca Voice wrote previously about how results had been missing from the initial tests and were only revealed on Monday — showing some of the highest lead levels yet. Brown said that this was normal in the testing process to have some results take longer to come back.

Asked to respond to some of the extremely high lead level (one faucet showed 5,000 ppb, which is the EPA threshold for toxic waste), Brown said that his understanding was that the water needed to be tested in different situations and they would be testing again soon.

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The Tompkins County Health Department maintains the position that students at the schools do not need to get tested. Brown said that he is confident that ICSD buildings are safe to continue operating.

He added that, as a parent, he shares the concerns of the many worried and upset parents throughout the district. But Brown also said he recognized that this is an issue that many schools nation-wide will be facing in the near future, and he hopes that ICSD can serve as a model for others in tackling the issue of water quality.

(featured photo: Alex from Flickr)

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Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at msmith@ithacavoice.com, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.