ITHACA, NY – The first half of New York State Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton’s Town Hall meeting on Thursday was dominated by a sometimes heated discussion of the ongoing issue of lead in Ithaca schools’ water.
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Lifton opened the meeting by acknowledging that the issue was something that had only recently been brought to her attention and she was still learning all the background.
Additionally, as Lifton is a state representative, her ability to influence the issue on a policy level is limited to state-level legislation and interactions with the state health department. Lifton pledged to do all she could to address the issue.
“I’ve been asking a lot of questions, I’ve talked to our health committee… I’m waiting to hear back from the Department of Health, it haven’t given me a clear answer on their role. So basically, I have a lot of feelers out trying to get a sense,” Lifton said. “You all may have as many answers as I do at this point.”
She did caution against taking any rash actions, suggesting that moving too quickly would lead to more mistakes or wasted resources.
Still, Lifton’s limited ability to comment didn’t seem to matter much — a lot of people attending the meeting clearly had a lot to say, and the conversation bounced freely, sometimes violently between a variety of speakers.
The meeting seemed to function as a sort of emergency pressure release valve: it was clear that a lot of people had frustrations to vent and there has been relatively few occasions for them to express them directly.
“It’s going to take some time”
Brad Grainger, a member of the ICSD Board of Education was in attendance, and Lifton asked him to offer some more information from the district’s point of view.
Grainger explained that the board first became aware of the issue with the water in Caroline and Enfield in early January and explained how they went on to test the rest of the district, ultimately turning off the drinking water in all the affected schools and providing bottled water for the students in each.
Grainger said the school plans to continue providing water,”… until we can basically work backwards and figure out what the issues are. At the moment we have an RFP (Request for Proposals) out for engineers, to get an engineering firm to lead the project for us.”
“What we don’t want to do is panic, come to an immediate solution without knowing it’s correct,” Grainger said. He pointed to the case of a Seattle-area school that had lead issues, invested time and money into replacing all their plumbing and it didn’t fix the problem. “It’s going to take some time,” he added.
Here were the main grievances expressed by parents at the Town Hall:
1 – Lack of communication.
A complaint that’s been present since the start of the controversy was brough up again: the fact that the school discovered lead problems in Caroline and Enfield in August of last year and did not inform parents within the 60-day period mandated by the EPA.
Lifton noted that the ICSD had acknowledged and apologized for their mistake.
2 – Lack of accountability.
Greg Goodrich, a parent from Enfield who has been co-leading an effort to provide reusable water bottles for ICSD staff and students, was frustrated that no one from the school district or Tompkins County Health Department seemed to be accepting responsibility on the communication issue.
“I’m offended by the county health department and anyone else who says that my kids have a ‘reasonable level of lead exposure.’ … [Tompkins Director of Environmental Health] Liz Cameron, when she got the test results in September should have done her job,” Goodrich said.
He went on: “No one from the Tompkins County Health Department and no one from the Tompkins County Legislature has had the guts to email me back.”
Goodrich said that only one person — someone from the New York State Department of Health office in Syracuse — told him on what date they knew about the lead issue. “Has anybody asked the Board of Education what day they learned? You know what? They won’t tell you the date. [Tompkins Health Director] Frank Kruppa won’t tell you the date. There’s an accountability issue here.”
3 – Faulty testing, again.
Along with the most recent round of results released by ICSD was a letter from the county health department, suggesting that the recent results from Caroline and Enfield schools may not have been accurate due to improper testing.
Some parents were upset with the mistake, particularly because the reason that the original results in August were not acted in the first place was because of supposed false testing.
Marcus Willamy, a plumber with 18 years experience, questioned the validity of these statements and the credentials of the people who had been performing the tests. He said that every time he’s finished a job, he’s had to provide a water sample, so he was surprised that the issue wasn’t identified sooner.
He also questioned the logic presented by the County Health Department’s letter, suggesting that the depressurization cited in the letter should have had no impact on the lead testing.
Melissa Hoffman, a parent from Caroline also pointed out the potential “loophole” in regards to EPA testing. As the Voice has reported on previously, lead testing is not required for schools that source their water from municipal systems. Systems sourced by independent wells, like Enfield and Caroline, only need to be tested every three years.
4 – Lack of action from Tompkins Health Department.
Early in the evening, Lifton had mentioned that she was hopeful because initial results form lead testing of children hadn’t revealed any cases.
The Tompkins County Health Department has maintained that no children are at risk of exposure due to lead in the water.
Melissa Hoffman of Caroline, responded to that point, saying, “We mentioned the 70 children have been thus far tested. That’s 2.5 percent of our student body. We have 3,000 children. An accurate level to base our decision on whether or not children have been impacted is about 1,500 children.”
Hoffman suggested that the Tompkins Health Department should be setting up lead screenings throughout the district so parents could have their children tested.
Walter Hang, a parent and an head of the local environmentalist watchdog group Toxics Targeting, pointed out, “There’s a maximum contaminant level goal of 0, that means there’s no safe level of exposure to lead in drinking water. We have no idea who’s been drinking what… this is not a trivial matter, that’s my bottom line.”
Tompkins County Legislator Anna Kelles, who was also in attendance, said that she had just come from a two-hour meeting with the Tompkins Department of Health and attempted to explain some information as it had been relayed to her.
Kelles reiterated the Tompkins Health Department’s stance on the issue of faulty tests. She said that the Caroline and Enfield tests were resampled on Wednesday and Thursday and would be resampled again next week. The retests would follow the EPA standard to recreate the “drinker’s experience” — which requires the water to sit unused for six hours before testing to create a “worse case scenario” of a student who would be the first person to drink from a water source after it had been sitting dormant all night.
Kelles stressed the importance of getting accurate samples before reaching any conclusions. Kelles, as well as school board member Brad Grainger, emphasized that the current situation with the bottled water was a temporary fix put in place so that due diligence could be done in investigating the issue and coming up with an action plan.
She also pointed out that science has shown that the primary factors for lead exposure are from paint and soil. Of the 12 cases of lead-poisoning reported in Tompkins, none were traced back to water. Kelles urged everyone to maintain a comprehensive approach to the issue and to consider issues of lead-bearing paint as well, particularly since there are so many older homes in the area.
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