Questions Surround Discovery of Lead in Newark Schools’ Water

Some are questioning why the school district waited nearly a week to alert them to elevated levels of lead in the water.

By Michael Hill

Children went to school at Branch Brook Elementary where the lead levels reached 13 times the EPA’s acceptable threshold and where some parents defensively dismissed the concern.

“I can not say that I’m not concerned, but I’m not concerned with this school,” said parent Idalya Bonet Rodriguez. Why? “I’m a born and raised native, this is my daughter’s school. I’m not going to change it,” she said.

But, another parent asked the principal about the high lead reading and she would take action.

“I’m going to have my son tested because I’m very concerned and it’s not a good thing for any of the kids in school,” said Elizabeth Lespier.

Thirty Newark public schools have elevated lead levels. One is 37 times the amount the EPA deems action worthy. Dr. Marc Edwards is a civil engineering professor at Virginia Tech – and a lead researcher on the team that helped uncover Flint’s lead water crisis.

“This is a very concerned level of lead in water. Back in 2004 the EPA use to say that 40 PPB posed an imminent and substantial endangerment to children and pregnant women,” he said.

The nagging question for many is why did the district wait nearly a week to alert parents and others?

“We wanted to ensure that we were able to get safe water. You can not shut a school down from drinking until you are able to provide them water,” said Newark Public Schools Business Administrator Valerie Wilson.

“As soon as the school found out, or the district found out, they should have warned the parents about it,” said Lespier.

When asked when he learned of the elevated lead levels at Branch Brook, Principal Joseph Cullen said, “I had a conference call with the superintendent and the other district staff and other principals that were affected very early in the morning yesterday.”

“In the grand scheme of things a week is a week too long, but at the same time they actually found this problem and I have to applaud the fact that they did that because what you’re looking at is the good news. You have responsible adults looking out for their kids” said Dr. Marc Edwards.

When did the mayor find out the state-run schools had the results?

“We found out the day before, Tuesday. I don’t know when anybody else found out about it, but that’s when the city did and the city responded immediately,” said Mayor Ras Baraka. When asked if he should have known sooner than that he said, “I should have known as soon as they told me.”

The Newark Teachers Union is irate and showed off an August 2014 district advisory issued because of lead contamination: “Instruct students and staff to run each fountain or drinking faucet for at least 30 seconds before drinking. Run and flush each individual water fountain for two minutes daily prior to the opening of school and denote in your log book daily. Run and flush each cafeteria ‘cold’ water faucet for two minutes daily prior to food prep usage. These protocols should be continued until you are instructed to do otherwise.”

“That was their attempt at resolving this issue on the cheap,” said Newark Teachers Union President John Abeigon.

Nonprofits and corporations have loaded, unloaded and dropped off hundreds of thousands of bottles of water at five city recreation centers for delivery to schools after the district cut off the drinking water supply at the 30 schools with the elevated lead levels.

Ten faucets at each school were tested for lead. Here at Louise Spenser Elementary four times that lead level was higher than the EPA threashold of 15 PPB. The highest here almost nine times that much at 134 PPB.

Congressman Donald Payne Jr. went to Spencer a week after visiting Flint and issued a dire warning about ignoring America’s aging water pipes.

“It’s a major issue that will be coming to a city near you,” he said.

A lesson districts and cities seem to be learning the hard way.

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