Law Firm Report Says Portland Schools Lax on Lead Levels

(Photo: Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

The legal firm Stoll Berne has released a report to the Portland Public Schools Board of Education with their findings of an investigation concerning lead levels in the drinking water that had been reported at several area schools in May 2016.

The report, “Stoll Berne Report to the Portland Public Schools Board of Education of Findings of Investigation,” noted that any testing performed was on a voluntary basis, as testing for lead levels in drinking water by schools is not required by Oregon state or federal law. Due to the budget constraints that Portland Public Schools has faced for the last decade, the Board and executive leadership have prioritized what financial resources they have to education matters, the report says, and have largely ignored the “decaying buildings and infrastructure” of PPS.  What money they did have was put toward health and safety issues regulated by the federal government.

No procedures or protocols for testing for elevated lead levels in the drinking water at PPS have been put in place over the last 15 years.  While a general set of practices were developed in 2002, they did not result in consistent testing, nor were they submitted to or approved by executive leadership.  Responsibility to oversee any testing of lead levels in drinking water was given to a single individual who did not receive any training on the topic.

Despite this, the authors say PPS has been proactive at times in an effort to provide safe drinking water in their schools.  For example, in 2001, voluntary, district-wide testing of a number of drinking water sources took place followed by efforts to provide solutions for those sources that tested for elevated lead levels in 2002.  In addition, a maximum acceptable lead level of 15 parts per billion was introduced by the district.

PPS’s Facilities and Asset Management hired a part-time employee in 2011-12 to be in charge of testing for lead in the water at some schools.  However, the authors found the practices used by that employee to not have matched those used by elsewhere by the district.

In addition, the district put $450,000 into increasing maintenance in March 2016, which included funds to perform district-wide water quality testing over the summer of 2016.

However, the authors continue to say that these efforts have largely been reactive in response to complaints from parents or staff members.  While the district has been willing to respond quickly to the requests for testing, communication with parents concerning testing has been inconsistent and the execution of testing and remediation has been largely inconsistent.

The authors conclude by stating that although testing had been performed in the district in 2001 with remediation in 2002, elevated lead levels in the water is not considered by the district to be an issue that needs attention, with no procedures or protocol in place for testing or for keeping track of which sources have been tested or for remediating sources found to have levels above 15/ppb.  Despite a “Lead in Water Program” being created under the job description of the Senior Manager of Environmental Health and Safety, no one could tell Stoll Berne what the program was or who supervised it.

They add that when an elevated lead level has been found, PPS has not created a system for communicating with parents, the public, or the media.