"Get the Lead Out" lost steam in Seattle schools

When it embarked on its "Get the Lead Out" project in 1990, Seattle Public Schools was nationally praised for being "ahead of the game" and showing leadership for cleaning up its drinking water.

But after lead levels went down initially, they began to rise and, despite repeated warnings over the next 10 years, lead contamination continued to pose a threat to some of the district's students. The most recent test results from the district reveal that 3.8 percent, or 60, of the fountains tested showed sustained lead levels above the federal government's guideline.

Wedgwood Elementary had one of the worst rates of lead contamination; a district manager recommended in 1993 that its pipes be replaced, but that was never done.

Now some angry parents, teachers and a Seattle School Board member are demanding an investigation into why problems weren't addressed earlier.

A Seattle Times review of hundreds of documents shows:

• District managers, the School Board and the community never made cleaning up the drinking water a funding priority after 1991.

• The district received a study from the state Department of Health that warned school staff members to flush the pipes several times during the day to protect children, but that was not relayed to custodians. Furthermore, flushing was not monitored daily, despite federal recommendations.

• The law didn't require the district to continue testing for lead.

These factors help explain why dangerous levels of lead contamination persist in the Seattle Public Schools.

The school district doesn't want to spend scarce resources investigating what happened during prior administrations and is now committed to reducing lead levels in problem schools, said district spokeswoman Patti Spencer-Watkins. All schools built before 1997 are receiving bottled water from the district, and the board plans to replace some pipes.

Although top district officials insist they don't know why problems weren't fixed earlier, documents show that many key decision-makers from the 1990s are involved in managing water quality today.

In 1988, Congress left most school districts across the nation unregulated when it passed the Lead Contamination Control Act, which regulated public-water suppliers.

If school districts chose to test, the act required them to notify the public and the affected schools that the results were available. If tests in school fountains showed lead levels exceeded 20 parts per billion (ppb), the act didn't require districts to reduce children's exposure; it only "recommended" that action be taken.

A 1989 Environmental Protection Agency manual on the issue, found in the Seattle district's records, said it was important for schools to limit children's lead exposure "in light of recent studies which reveal that even very low levels of lead in drinking water can have subtle adverse effects on children."

Seattle residents were well aware of this. In the 1980s, the city was one of the first in the country to ban the use of lead solder in construction and aggressively sought to reduce the corrosiveness of its public water supply.

The school district's actions continued to raise the public's expectations.

Lead testing in schools began in fall 1990. Based on the results, the district's consultants recommended short-term fixes: removing problem fountains, flushing others and installing low-lead-content fountains.

"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.

In October 1994, the state Department of Health's drinking-water specialist faxed the Seattle School District's point person on lead monitoring, Robert Terry, a study on the "Effectiveness of Flushing on Reducing Lead and Copper Levels in School Drinking Water." The study measured lead levels in fountains in 50 New Jersey school buildings.

The author's conclusions were jarring:

"The most significant observation from this study is that one-time, morning flushing of schools' drinking water may not provide day-long protection for children. Schools currently using flushing as a temporary remedy to control lead exposure to students should consider periodic flushing; that is running drinking water fountains for 5-10 min every 2-3 hr during the school day. Longer flushing may be needed in the mornings, after vacations, weekends and holidays."

But the district's custodial-services manual wasn't changed. In August 1997, the manual still instructed custodians to let water run each morning for 30 seconds after weekends or vacations.

Lead reduction became a lower spending priority for the district as the 1990s wore on.

The 1995 levy-oversight committee, appointed by the School Board, ignored the lead issue in its meetings and focused on getting school construction projects done.

KIRO-TV sounded the alarm in May 1998, when it broadcast a report that claimed the station had found dangerously high lead levels in three of 10 Seattle schools from which it collected samples.

At the time, Edwin Heller, district maintenance manager, defended the district's handling of the lead problem.

"The health and welfare of children placed in our care is always paramount," he wrote. "We have been proactive on this issue since 1990 without any mandate or funds." After 16 months of community discussion, the School Board approved a facilities master plan in 1999 without any specific reference to lead reduction. The plan was designed to guide staff in prioritizing projects through 2010 and for capital levies.

Replacing lead-leaching pipes in schools would be "cost prohibitive," wrote Troy White, environmental quality manager, in a 2001 e-mail to a school. Flush for 30 seconds, he wrote.

Frustration over the inconsistent flushing by schools may have prompted Heller to call a staff meeting in August of that year. According to handwritten notes from that meeting, Heller seemed to have as many questions as answers for handling the lead problem.

The staff could request money for a testing plan in the 2004 levy.

Were there any plumbing standards for school districts?

The staff should compare the cost of replacing the building pipes, supplying bottled water or installing filters on each fountain.

Heller could not be reached for comment. In the past, he has referred questions to Facilities Director John Vacchiery, who said he could not comment on what occurred prior to 2003, when he assumed oversight of Heller's department.

Last fall, two Wedgwood parents, both scientists, raised alarms about lead in that school's drinking water.

Thanks to voter approval of a capital levy in February, the School Board will replace the plumbing at Wedgwood, Fairmount Park, Schmitz Park and Mann (now called NOVA) buildings this summer. In 1993, a district manager recommended new pipes for those schools.

The Wedgwood parents also have been pushing for legislation regulating school districts' drinking water at the state and federal level.

A bill to require school districts to monitor and reduce lead in their drinking sources failed in Olympia last spring. A bill introduced in the U.S. Senate in response to a lead-contamination crisis in the District of Columbia's schools would create a $150 million, five-year grant program for schools nationwide to reduce lead levels in drinking water.

In January, Heller began recommending more than just a morning flushing in at least one school. When the district started delivering bottled water, Olympic View Principal Tim Moynihan wrote Heller to ask why he was requiring the custodian to post signs near fountains reminding users to run them for 30 seconds every time they take a drink.

"It is still prudent to flush a fountain as you cannot be sure when the last time it was used," Heller wrote. "The issue is not that we think the water is not perfectly fine, the issue is that we have not verified that it is perfectly fine."

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