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Thursday, February 12, 2004

Old water pipes to be replaced at four schools

By DEBORAH BACH
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTER

Seattle Public Schools is moving ahead with plans to replace old water pipes at four schools -- more than a decade after a district report recommended that action to keep dangerous levels of lead out of drinking water.

District officials confirmed yesterday that pipes will likely be replaced at Wedgwood, Fairmount Park and Schmitz Park elementary schools, and NOVA, an alternative high school.

The district will hire a mechanical engineer or architect to oversee the project, with the work expected to be done this summer. A consultant is also being hired to test water at all of the district's schools and devise a plan for carrying out improvements.

Last year, Wedgwood Elementary parents complained about orange-colored water coming out of school taps, and took their concerns -- and water-quality tests -- to the Seattle School Board. The board ordered more comprehensive testing, and had bottled water distributed to about 70 schools in the meantime.

The move to replace the pipes at the four schools was prompted by the age of the systems and "earlier reports" about poor water quality, said John Vacchiery, the district's director of facilities planning and enrollment.

A district report in 1993 recommended replacing all piping at the four schools. The report, which followed water testing at 80 schools and facilities in 1990, also recommended random sampling to ensure that lead levels remain within recommended levels, and replacing fixtures in fountains that have lead levels over the limits.

Drinking fountains in many buildings were replaced but a consistent testing program was never implemented.

More testing was conducted in 2000 and 2001 at less than a third of Seattle schools. Data released by the district indicate that only one school cited in the 1993 report -- Schmitz Park -- was tested at that time. It showed lead levels over federal limits in two fountains, one of them five times over the allowable limit.

Lead was widely used in drinking fountains until the late 1970s and is known to cause permanent neurological damage, leading to lowered intelligence and behavioral problems in children.

Asked why the district failed to follow through on the 1993 recommendations, Vacchiery said water testing fell under the maintenance department, which did not raise the issue as a priority. Though he's been in charge of capital projects since 1996, Vacchiery said he was only "vaguely aware" of the testing issue.

"Nobody on the maintenance side raised to us, at least to my knowledge, that we should be adding water-pipe replacement to any of the programs," he said.

Questions about drinking-water quality were raised last fall by Wedgwood parents Mark Cooper and Geoff Compeau, who took water samples from four of the school's drinking fountains and had them tested at a certified lab in December.

All four had lead levels exceeding Environmental Protection Agency limits of 20 parts per billion, including a fountain in a classroom with lead levels 10 times over the limit. One fountain also had cadmium levels exceeding EPA limits of 5 ppb.

During a PTA meeting at Wedgwood last month, district maintenance manager Ed Heller apologized to angry parents for failing to address the health problem.

"At the same time we were dealing with asbestos, with radon, with indoor air quality, with roofs that leak," he said. "There are a lot of reasons why it didn't happen."

Cooper criticized the district yesterday for failing to take action sooner.

"What's really telling is that despite all this parental outrage, multiple times, nothing was done to replace the pipes at these schools until the most current outrage," he said.

"We cannot keep doing this. You cannot rely on parent groups spending thousands of hours and countless board meetings trying to get responsible actions out of our officials. What you need is external oversight."

That oversight would have been part of a bill that now appears to be dead until next year's legislative session.

Sponsored by Sen. Ken Jacobsen, D-Seattle, the bill would have required the state Board of Health to adopt drinking-water quality standards for schools, and would hold districts responsible for taking corrective action when contaminants exceed EPA limits.

Under current laws, public schools -- with the exception of those that have their own water source, such as a well -- are not required by state or federal law to test their drinking water. The federal Safe Drinking Water Act requires water suppliers such as Seattle Public Utilities to test water, but treats schools like private homes and other customers.

Jacobsen's bill was opposed by school administrator groups, who said it would saddle districts with an unfunded mandate and estimated that water testing at public schools statewide would cost as much as $20 million.

Vacchiery said there are no estimates yet on what it would cost to replace pipes at the four schools. The project needs the School Board's approval, he said, and would likely be paid for by diverting funds from other capital programs.

P-I reporter Deborah Bach can be reached at 206-448-8197 or deborahbach@seattlepi.com


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