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Parents criticize officials after lead found at 2 schools

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS

    Portland Public School holds a public meeting at Creston Elementary School to address lead in the drinking water, Tuesday, May 31, 2016, in southeast Portland, Ore. Jennifer Jones of the Eastside Portland Air Coalition, who has a son attending Franklin High School, attended the meeting Tuesday.

PORTLAND, Ore. >> Parents leveled harsh criticism at officials over high amounts of lead found in water sources at two Portland schools, while Schools Superintendent Carole Smith promised an independent investigation into how it occurred.

Dozens of parents spoke and asked questions of a panel Tuesday night that included Smith, other district representatives, and water officials from Oregon Health Authority, Portland Water Bureau and Multnomah County. The meeting was held to address concerns that tests done in March found elevated levels of lead in 14 of 92 water sources at Creston K-8 School and the Rose City Park School.

More than 100 parents attended, and shouting ensued at times when some didn’t feel school officials answered the questions to their liking. Officials were criticized for a lack of communication and failure to follow through on previous signs that there were problems.

“I have a third grader who’s been drinking from the fountain with the highest lead level all year, and last year and the year before was drinking from one of the other ones, so for three years of his 9 year old life has been drinking this water,” parent Judy Burke said.

Parent Mike Southern called for Smith’s resignation to half-hearted applause from others at the meeting.

“The fact that we have an aging stock of buildings and these buildings have shown in the past to have toxic levels of lead, and the current administration did not address this, is evidence enough that we are operating in a dysfunctional system,” Southern said. “And that system is led by Carole Smith. I am tired of the broken promises, the mismanagement and the endless dog and pony show of meeting after meeting that pretends to address the public need.”

Smith said earlier in the evening she was made aware of the issue late last week and subsequently informed the board, reiterating an apology she gave Friday in a statement. “This is not our protocol, this is not acceptable, and we’re taking a number of immediate actions, she said.

Two district employees could be placed on administrative leave as a result of the investigation, she added. Some of the other actions to be taken include creating a new website to communicate about the testing and fixes and creating a ‘healthy water task force’ to come up with a new water testing strategy for the future.

The district said it will provide bottled drinking water for all district students and staff through the end of the school year, until schools can be tested this summer, which happens every 15 years. The district placed bags over water fountains at all schools on Friday, Smith said.

She said she can’t predict the cost of testing the system, saying the district may have to use reserve funds if it tops the $450,000 budget for the project.

The lack of lead testing in Oregon schools’ water systems — concerns for which were largely brought to the forefront by the Flint, Michigan, water crisis — prompted Gov. Kate Brown in April to call for a statewide review of existing school processes. She directed the Oregon Health Authority, which carries out Environmental Protection Agency water regulations at the state level, and the Oregon Department of Education to also make recommendations for improvement.

“Schools are not included when water systems test for lead as required by EPA, meaning that a water system may be deemed to have safe lead levels overall, while water quality at schools remains unknown,” Brown said in an April statement.

Earlier this year, a Flint-inspired nationwide review by the USA Today Network found that more than 2,000 water systems fell short of EPA rules for lead, ranking Oregon at No. 18.

It also found EPA has handed out 180 citations to officials nationwide for failing to immediately tell the public — as was the case at the two Portland schools — when high lead levels are discovered.

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