ITHACA, NY – Ithaca City School District Superintendent Luvelle Brown rightly predicted that Ithaca’s schools wouldn’t be the last to face the issue of lead in their water.

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In the wake of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, the laws that regulate our water supplies have come under intense scrutiny, and many are reaching the conclusion that those laws are inadequate. Dozens of schools throughout New York and across the country have begun testing for lead, with a disturbing number of positive results.

The good news is that this has not gone unnoticed. Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton and Senator Chuck Schumer have both been crafting legislation to tackle to this issue across New York State and Schumer has gotten the EPA involved directly in Ithaca.

The first bit of bad news is, obviously, that some children may have been negatively affected thanks to this insufficient oversight.

The other bad news, though, is that identifying lead is only one part of the problem. Actually eliminating lead from our water supply is the bigger, more complicated, more expensive, and less by-the-numbers part of the problem.

Many parents have been criticial of ICSD for not taking immediate action to replace the schools’ plumbing.

Never minding questions of expense and logistics, the frustrating truth is that it’s not always that straightforward.

At a town hall meeting with Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton that was dominated by discussion of the lead issue, ICSD Board of Education member Brad Grainger explained that that some years ago, in the Seattle school system, they had a lead problem and pulled out all the pipes, only to discover that it did not actually fix the problem.

“What we don’t want to do is panic, come to an immediate solution without knowing it’s correct,” Grainger said then. “It’s going to take some time.”

Given ICSD’s less-than-stellar record when it comes to communicating with parents on this issue, some saw this as an excuse or a deflection for not taking action.

Unfortunately, what Grainger said is true. Ithaca won’t be the first city to face this problem, and it certainly isn’t the first.

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With that in mind, here are some lessons that Ithaca can take going forward:

1 – We need to be (reasonably) patient

In a 2006 article, the Seattle Times reported on the Seattle school district’s ongoing trouble with lead:

“Routine tests have found higher-than-normal levels of lead in the water in at least 35 Seattle public schools, the school district announced Wednesday… The district has been coping with one water-quality problem after another since 2004, when it spent $13 million to replace pipes and install 1,000 new fixtures because of high levels of lead and iron.” … The pipes in most of the schools tested are fewer than 10 years old, and neither they nor the fixtures or solders are made of lead. The schools had tested within the allowable levels for lead in 2004.”

And this wasn’t just the school district’s second run-in with lead, it was at least the third — a similar scare occurred in the early 1990s, but more on that in a moment.

NPR called attention to a similar situation in a California school just days ago. In the Los Angeles unified school district:

But a bigger challenge, [Chief Facilities Executive at LA Unified] says, is that getting rid of lead in water is incredibly complicated. ‘LA Unified doesn’t even have lead pipes … Our greatest percentage of fountains that do have higher concentrations [of lead] than we would like come from brand new schools.’ … LA Unified has discovered that the low-maintenance brass fittings it chose for the bubblers on new water fountains can leach lead.

One school district in Baltimore essentially decided to give up the fight against lead in the water, resorting to using bottled water a permanent solution, according to a 2007 Baltimore Sun story.
“They’ve chased and chased and chased after these potential sources of lead,” said one former EPA official, “and although they were able to get most of them, they weren’t able to get them all.”

In the meantime, so long as ICSD — with the help of charitable parents and community members — can keep bottled water flowing into the school and the faucets turned off, there’s no real harm in taking a methodical approach to the issue.

2 – We need to be vigilant

Just above I mentioned how Seattle first encountered a lead problem in in the early 1990s. Another Seattle Times report from 2004 details how the Seattle school system had been seen as a pioneer in the fight against lead with a program called, “Get the Lead Out.”

The article explains how after initial efforts had been made to address the lead problems and positive results were achieved, the issue faded into the background and wasn’t given the attention it deserved.

The lesson here is that regardless of how the problem is ultimately fixed, we can’t let that be the end of the story. We need to support, and if necessary, lean on our lawmakers to push for legislation that will ensure, through more rigorous testing standards, that this problem isn’t glossed over. And we need to do the same to our school administrator’s to ensure that those regulations are adhered to, without exception.

The Seattle Times piece talks about how some parents there pushed for such legislation. A state-level bill failed to pass there, which only underscores the need for the fear, frustration and anger created over this issue to be translated into action.

3 – We need to be willing to bear the cost

The Seattle Times article referencing the “Get the Lead Out” program also includes this troubling bit:

“A long term recommendation is to replace a facility’s plumbing system which is considered to be contributing to the lead problem,” according to a 1991 internal memo circulated in the school district’s Facilities Department. A national trade magazine featured the district’s lead-removal efforts.

But after voters rejected a capital levy in 1992 that could have been used to replace pipes, district managers relied heavily on having custodians flush fountains 30 seconds in the morning after weekends or holidays.

It goes on to say how the flushing method wasn’t really providing sufficient protection, but the real reason for highlighting this passage is because it reveals another important lesson: fixing this issue very well may cost a substantial amount of money.

While the federal and state grants being proposed by Schumer and Lifton may help, there’s no way of knowing if those programs will be ready in time, or even if they will pass.

It may ultimately fall on the taxpayer to foot that bill. If that time comes, we shouldn’t balk if our tax bills get a little higher.

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(featured photo: Alex from Flickr)

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.