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Monday, April 6, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Portland parents decry officials over lead at two schools

A covered water fountain is seen as the Portland Public Schools holds a public meeting at Creston Elementary School to address lead in the drinking water on Tuesday, May 31, 2016, in southeast Portland. (Beth Nakamura / Associated Press)
A covered water fountain is seen as the Portland Public Schools holds a public meeting at Creston Elementary School to address lead in the drinking water on Tuesday, May 31, 2016, in southeast Portland. (Beth Nakamura / Associated Press)
By Kristena Hansen Associated Press

PORTLAND – Parents sometimes shouted as they criticized officials over high amounts of lead in drinking water at two Portland schools, while the head of the district promised an independent investigation into the contamination.

Some parents grilled a panel of Portland Public Schools administrators and government water officials after tests in March revealed elevated levels of lead in 14 of 92 water sources at Creston K-8 School and the Rose City Park School. They faulted school officials for failing to warn people not to drink the water and follow through on previous signs of 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,” parent Judy Burke said. “So for three years of his 9-year-old life has been drinking this water.”

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

She said she found out about the lead levels late last week and told the school board. She reiterated an apology for not notifying families and employees right away even as the district moved to fix or replace plumbing.

“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, Smith said. The district plans to launch a website to communicate about the testing and fixes and create a task force to come up with a new water testing strategy.

More than 100 parents attended the meeting, where some said the promises were not enough.

“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,” parent Mike Southern said, calling for Smith’s resignation to half-hearted applause.

“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,” he said.

The lack of lead testing in Oregon schools’ water systems – brought to the forefront by the Flint, Michigan, water crisis – led Gov. Kate Brown in April to call for a statewide review. 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.

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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