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Email Shows Top Officials in Portland Public Schools Knew About Lead Danger in 2012

After elevated lead levels were found in the water at 47 schools, district officials took steps to curb drinking from school faucets.

An email obtained today by WW appears to contradict Portland Public Schools chief operating officer Tony Magliano's claim that he was previously unaware of test results from 2010 to 2012 that found elevated levels of lead in the water at 47 PPS buildings.

Over the weekend, Magliano told WW he didn't know about the tests showing elevated lead levels at 47 schools between 2010 and 2012.

But the newly obtained email was sent to Magliano and five others on Oct. 24, 2012, by Erin Barnett, who works in the district's communications office.

It called for a meeting to discuss putting warning labels on sinks in schools with high levels of lead.

"It's time to take the next big step on sending sink stickers to schools (They say: 'Do not drink this water. Please use drinking fountains.') and communicating with principals and parents about water quality," wrote Barnett.

She added that she wondered if it was possible to provide more targeted warnings. "Can custodians have the lead tests results and ONLY put stickers on sinks that really can't be used for drinking water?"

Although WW presented the results of lead tests done from 2010 to 2012 to senior district officials, including Superintendent Carole Smith and Magliano last Friday, May 27, they have continued to claim they knew nothing about those results.

The Oct. 24, 2012, email from Barnett undercuts those claims.

It's possible, though unlikely, that the test results referred to in the email were the districtwide lead test results from 10 years before—2001 and 2002—and not the results from 2010 through 2012. Like the earlier tests, the latter tests, which Magliano denied knowing about, included faucets and drinking fountains.

A Portland Public Schools spokeswoman declined to comment on the 2012 email or Magliano's knowledge of lead test results.

The email provides new clues about who in the district knew about test results, reported by WW last night, that show 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.

It's not clear what happened to the plan to put labels on the sinks at multiple schools. But at least one school, Rigler Elementary, received them in 2012 after a parent there complained about filters.

As Oregon Public Broadcasting reported Tuesday, an email from Barnett showed at least she was aware of the problem with lead at that school, noting students and staff were discouraged from drinking from faucets.

"The reason for this practice is because the plumbing in many of our schools is old and, in some cases, lead levels above the acceptable standard have been found in the water in our schools," Barnett said.

At at least one school, Wilson High, staff and parents received a memo warning them not to use the faucets in September 2012.

"As a general precaution, please inform staff and students not to use sink faucets as sources for drinking water," Patrick Wolfe, then senior manager of health and safety, wrote in an email, describing the warning as an "annual reminder," though no previous or subsequent warnings were unearthed by the teacher who dug up the email, says Portland Association of Teacher president Gwen Sullivan.

"Not all sink faucets provide water with lead content below the regulated limit. The district has tested all fountains; it replaced those with fixtures that contributed lead with low-lead fixtures. The district also installed filters on fountains with plumbing that contributed lead."

Last night, PPS Superintendent Carole Smith told a community meeting that she would hire independent investigators to examine how the district handled lead test results. She also said she might place some district managers on paid administrative leave.

But Smith and the school district still haven't said why the tests from 2010 and 2012 were performed, what actions PPS took to address the problem, or whether the tests indicated widespread, unaddressed problems with other faucets and fountains.

"We test schools when concerns are brought to our attention; concerns could be from staff, principals or parents," says district spokeswoman Christine Miles.