Portland District Failed to Disclose Excessive Lead Levels at 47 School Buildings

Records show that dozens of school buildings had elevated lead levels from 2010 to 2012, some higher than results released last week.

Last week, Portlanders learned the Portland Public Schools had found elevated levels of lead in water at two schools in March, but failed to disclose this information for nearly two months.

In the past few days, WW has learned and confirmed that PPS did tests across the district from 2010 to 2012—at 90 buildings—finding elevated levels of lead in the water at 47 of them, including Jefferson and Cleveland high schools and Ainsworth Elementary School. In some cases, the levels were higher than those found at Creston and Rose City Park, the schools that were named last week.

This highly charged finding comes from a printout WW received from a district database of all water testing from 2001 through February 2015. The printout shows that 47 structures—schools, office buildings and others—tested for levels of lead from 2010 to 2012 that were above the federal standard of 15 parts per billion.

As extraordinary as these findings are, WW could not find any officials at PPS who say they knew of the testing or the results prior to learning of them from WW last Friday. Nor is it clear what was done in response to the tests.

Superintendent Carole Smith (who has led the school district since 2007), PPS chief operating officer Tony Magliano, and five members of the School Board all told WW that the 2010-2012 tests were news to them. Andy Fridley, the district's environmental director, declined to answer questions.

On Friday, May 27, WW emailed the test results to district officials at 3:47 pm. Smith did not respond until Tuesday morning.

But that evening, four hours after they received the test results from WW, the district abruptly announced it was shutting off drinking water at all PPS schools for the rest of the school year and providing bottled water instead. At the time, local media assumed it was just a precautionary measure stemming from the findings at Creston and Rose City Park, not because of test results showing problems at other schools.

The district denied Tuesday there was a connection.

"No, it was a precautionary move," says PPS spokeswoman Christine Miles.

Smith, reached by phone early Tuesday, says she knew nothing about any lead test results from 2010 to 2012, even though she was superintendent at the time.

"Was I aware of it? No," Smith says.

Now, Smith wants a "third-party investigation" that she hopes will identify "lapses in judgment, protocol and communication."

Gwen Sullivan, president of the Portland Association of Teachers, says teachers were never told of the results from 2010 to 2012.

"It's shocking, and it's scary not only as a parent but because of all the teachers in the buildings all the time," she tells WW.

School Board member Mike Rosen, who, as former manager for the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services, is familiar with water testing, reviewed the documents provided to WW.

"It appears, based on a preliminary review of a portion of data from as recently as five years ago, there may have been reason for the district to suspect that further investigation of lead in drinking water was needed," Rosen says. "The need for an objective, thorough and speedy investigation is, as the superintendent has said, urgent and a high priority."

School Board Chairman Tom Koehler, who also said the results were news to him, is calling for a "thorough examination by an outside entity" of how PPS handles lead testing.

"We don't know the answers to those questions, and we want to know them as soon as we can," he says. "That's unacceptable, and we need to get to the bottom of this."

The Oregonian first reported last week that tests in March at Creston and Rose City Park schools found levels of lead above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's "action level" of 15 parts per billion.

PPS belatedly turned off the water and began preparations to replace fixtures and retest them.

On Friday, May 27, Smith acknowledged she had failed to communicate this information for nearly two months.

Now Smith must face the charge that the district has known of problems at many, many more schools for at least four years—even though officials are claiming in essence that while the testing was done, no one knew it.

PPS COO Magliano said over the weekend that he is now reviewing the data WW provided him.

"I have my staff going through the database," Magliano says. "I don't have a specific answer at this time."

The newly uncovered results show elevated lead levels at a number of buildings, including Kelly Elementary. On Jan. 16, 2012, a bubbler in the music room in a portable showed a level of 174 parts per billion, and in Room 7, which was labeled as a lounge, a fixture showed a reading of 140 ppb. At George Middle School, Room 303 showed a reading of 100 ppb on March 31, 2012.

Not all of the buildings with high levels of lead serve children. At one administrative building, called in documents "the Rice site," the lead level hit 1,700 parts per billion.

In Flint, Mich., by comparison, 10 percent of the households had water at or above 27 parts per billion, though some readings were in the 30,000 ppb range.

The School Board held an emergency meeting Tuesday night.

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