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Friday, July 02, 2004 - Page updated at 08:46 P.M.
Correction: This story originally misstated the number of schools for which lead test results are available from the Seattle School District. That mistake affected the calculated percent of water samples containing sustained levels of excessive lead. The story was corrected online July 2.

School district ignored lead hazard

By Sanjay Bhatt
Seattle Times staff reporter

STEVE RINGMAN / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Rick Dorgan, working for Auburn Mechanical, solders a pipe joint while installing new exposed copper pipes at Wedgwood Elementary School. The new installation will be complete Aug. 15.
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How much lead is in the drinking water
About 3.8 percent of Seattle Public Schools' drinking water fountains tested so far show sustained lead levels considered dangerous by the federal government, according to a districtwide testing ordered by the School Board.

Though the district learned of lead contamination in its drinking fountains in 1990 and some fountains have since been replaced, the problem persists in some schools. This points to the pipes as the source.

Meanwhile, district officials until now have insisted that they couldn't explain why the problems weren't addressed earlier.

Recently released internal school district e-mails, which surfaced in a public-records lawsuit, now paint a different picture: The district didn't replace pipes that produced water with high lead levels unless the pipes were completely corroded.

"We do not consider replacing unless there is also low water pressures AND high lead content," maintenance manager Ed Heller wrote facilities director John Vacchiery last year after Wedgwood parents complained. "Wedgwood does not fit those categories. Should it be replaced? Yes. Is it a higher priority than many deferred maintenance projects at other sites ... ? No."

Instead of replacing pipes, district managers bought time by asking school custodians to flush fountains regularly. But they were given conflicting instructions. As early as 2001, school custodians were told by other district managers to conserve water.

"I know that we are supposed to be conserving water, but my recommendation is that students and staff run the water at drinking fountains and sinks until it clears before using it," wrote Troy White in a May 2001 e-mail to supervisors, including Heller, about water quality at Pinehurst K-8. White is a district environmental coordinator.

The new information further complicates the story of what went awry in Seattle Public Schools' maintenance program. Superintendent Raj Manhas has vowed to fix the water problems in the district — other districts in the nation are grappling with the same problem — but also is opposed to spending scarce resources on investigating what went wrong.

Vacchiery said he couldn't comment on what Heller's intentions were and that he wasn't overseeing the department in 2001. If there was a directive to conserve water, it would have come from one of three people: the maintenance manager, the operations manager or the logistics director, he said. Heller couldn't be reached for comment.

Asked if he had learned anything from the water problems, Vacchiery said, "In order to get a handle on the problem we needed a comprehensive testing program, which we're doing."

School Board member Sally Soriano said yesterday that she wanted an investigation of why the problems weren't fixed sooner.

"The new board, the four of us, ran on the issue of transparency," Soriano said.

Soon after the new board took office last November, they learned that Wedgwood, Schmitz Park, Fairmount Park and Mann schools hadn't had new pipes installed, even though a district manager recommended in 1993 that replacement was necessary to address dangerous lead levels.

The board unanimously passed a policy in December of "assuring that students have free access to quality drinking water" and ordered water testing at all schools and the provision of bottled water until the tests were completed.

Lead is toxic to the brain, especially in children, whose brains are still developing. Long-term exposure to high doses can result in lead poisoning, but lower doses are considered harmful, too (see Q&A).

Lead poisoning from drinking water is uncommon, however, and has never been documented in Washington state. The most common sources of lead exposure are in contaminated soil and lead-based paint, which was banned from use in construction after 1978. In the 1980s, Seattle also was among the first cities to ban lead solder in household construction.

But a large number of Seattle's schools were built prior to those changes. At least 40 schools have pipes that need to be replaced or repaired, district officials say, at a cost of roughly $10 million.

In April, the district released the first phase of test results, and to date, Wedgwood has the most disturbing results: Seven of Wedgwood's 28 drinking fountains — even after being flushed for 30 seconds — produced water samples containing lead levels between 22 and 370 parts per billion (ppb). The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends schools take immediate action when water samples contain more than 20 ppb.

During the summer, the district plans to replace the pipes at Mann, Wedgwood, Schmitz Park and Fairmount Park.

On its Web site, the district has posted results of water testing at 89 buildings. The board will write a more detailed water policy in August, said Soriano, who heads the board's policy committee and has helped citizens pry documents from the district.

Some critics aren't satisfied. Wedgwood parent Mark Cooper has called for the removal of the district's maintenance manager and facilities director.

Kevin Scudder, a parent from Lowell Elementary, filed a lawsuit in May, alleging that the district didn't provide all the documents he asked for in a public-records request. He first received about 660 pages of documents, he said, but it was clear there had to be more from what he and others knew. A few days after he filed the lawsuit, he said the district invited him to review roughly another 300 pages of documents "that I think should have been provided in the first place."

Scudder said he's shared those with other parents, and is still reviewing them. If he's satisfied that the district now has fully complied with his request, he said he won't pursue the lawsuit.

But he said he will continue to apply pressure on the district to deal with the problem.

"As this gets more and more publicity and more parents learn about this, they are going to have to start listening more," he said.

Staff writer Linda Shaw contributed to this report.

Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 or sbhatt@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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