January 2017 Issue
December 20, 2016

Unions credit districts for swift response on water testing

Author: By Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT United
Massena TA president Erin Covell says the dangers of lead contamination cannot be underestimated. Water sources in three Massena school buildings were found to have lead levels well above the state limit. Photo by Becky Miller.
Caption: Massena TA president Erin Covell says the dangers of lead contamination cannot be underestimated. Water sources in three Massena school buildings were found to have lead levels well above the state limit. Photo by Becky Miller.

NYSUT local unions representing pre-K to grade 12 educators are applauding their districts for taking rapid action to comply with a new state law mandating water testing. NYSUT, in response to the massive water contamination in Flint, Mich., and PFOA contamination in Hoosick Falls, strongly advocated for the law that aims to protect educators and students from the serious health effects of lead, a heavy metal toxin.

The September 2016 law requires public schools to discontinue use of any water outlet with lead levels above 15 parts per billion. Schools must also "implement a lead remediation plan to mitigate the lead level and provide building occupants with an adequate alternate supply of water for cooking and drinking."

Lead can damage the central nervous system, leading to reduced attention spans, learning disabilities, behavioral problems and/or hearing loss, according to NYSUT's Health and Safety fact sheet on www.nysut.org.

Thanks to advocacy by NYSUT's Health and Safety Committee and the union's legislative department, NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta said, the law also provides some funding for testing and remediation.

The Voorheesville school district in Albany County found faucets used to fill water jugs in the cafeteria and for after-school programs had 1,800 parts per billion of lead, well above the state threshold. The district immediately shut off the faucets.

Kathy Fiero, president of the Voorheesville TA, contacted her NYSUT labor relations specialist, who helped her find out what she needed to do. "Our district handled this extremely well," Fiero said. The district shut down other unsafe sites and brought in water coolers. "They brought in specialists to help determine the cause and in one case it was found to be related to a faucet repair which was immediately corrected," Fiero said.

The district also provided free lead testing for faculty and staff through a visiting clinic. Parents were encouraged to bring their child to a pediatrician for testing, she said, and the district reimbursed insurance copays. "Fortunately, no staff members or students were found to have elevated blood lead levels," she said.

The Three Villages district on Long Island also took proactive measures and conducted water testing last spring. Remediation work was completed before the school year began, including removing certain water access locations from service and installing filtered water bottle filling stations at schools.

"We're completely involved all the way," said Claudia Reinhart, president of the 700-member Three Villages TA. The union also actively participates with the districtwide health and safety committee.

The Fredonia school district, working closely with the Chautauqua County Health Department, has spent about $20,000 so far on testing, said Roger Pacos, president of the Fredonia TA.

Lead was found in outdoor school faucets, sinks in science labs, and in unused rooms in an old primary school. The main high school dates back to the 1960s, he said; some rooms in the primary school date to the 1950s.

"Back then the solder they used was a mixture of tin and lead," said Pacos, a high school technology education teacher who has taught plumbing as part of construction class.

In Fredonia, 39 sites still exceeded the acceptable lead levels during required retesting after flushing, according to a district report. The district now needs to determine the source of the lead and what the remediation will be, with the help of the county health department. The district reported all operating drinking and food prep water sources remain safe and below the acceptable limits.

Three school buildings in Massena, St. Lawrence County, including an elementary school built in 1954, had lead test results above the state limit. Fixtures were replaced and retested.

Erin Covell, president of the 223-member Massena TA, said she did not grasp the seriousness of the Flint water crisis until she heard a resident speak about how lead in the water destroyed health, homes, livelihoods and businesses, during an AFT Executive Committee meeting in Washington, D.C.

"I had blinders on," Covell said. "It totally changed my perspective. Yes, this law is important. Anything to help." Massena has already been affected by PCB contaminants that were dumped in the Grasse River, a tributary of the St. Lawrence River, by aluminum manufacturers.

Though many unions reported swift responses from the district, some concerns remain. The Guilderland district, Albany County, had a range of high lead rates in water sources at various schools, including a prep room sink at 726 ppb and a science room sink at 243 ppb. Erin McNamara, president of the Guilderland Central TA said remediation is occurring, though "not at the speed and efficiency we'd like."

The massive effort to test water in more than 4,500 school buildings had to be completed by Oct. 31. Statewide results were still pending as NYSUT United went to press. Environmental regulatory protections are important, noted Wendy Hord, NYSUT health and safety specialist. New York State schools are now required to collect samples every five years, at a minimum.

Results are in

According to state law, schools must post the results of all lead testing and any remediation plans on the district's website as soon as possible but no more than six weeks after the school receives the laboratory reports. Districts had until Nov. 11 to report the completion of all required first-draw samplings to the state Department of Health.