HILLSBOROUGH: School district to re-test drinking water for lead

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Andrew Martins, Managing Editor
Officials with the Hillsborough Township Public School District are taking a mulligan over the next few weeks to rectify an issue surrounding previous efforts to test for lead throughout the district’s water systems.
During the Oct. 30 board of education meeting, district Business Administrator Aiman Mahmoud said the recommendation to retest all potable water bubblers and water fountains came at the request of its current vendor, Environmental Designs, Inc.
“One of the issues brought up on our part is if we should shut down all of those water fountains and that is something we’re not going to do,” Mahmoud said. “We’re going to retest them and if there’s a problem with those fountains, then we will shut them down and provide an alternate water source.”
According to Tim Roman, of EDI, the need to retest stems from the fact that the state Department of Education took issue with how the district’s previous water testing vendor, PARS Environmental, Inc. conducted its initial water test, which included school-wide water flushing events that took place the evening before samples were collected.
“Unless the school is in the habit of flushing the system like that, then the samples were collected in an environment that wasn’t reflective of the normal operating conditions of the school,” he said.
During the Oct. 9 school board meeting, officials revealed that at least nine water fixtures that had previously been designated as safe for use by the first vendor, PARS Environmental, Inc., should in fact have been closed for months by state regulatory standards.
As per state regulations, public school districts are required to test for lead in their drinking and general use water every six years. Board President Gregory Gillette said testing at Hillsborough was conducted by PARS during the 2016-17 school year, at which point 60 units were found to exhibit higher than acceptable levels of lead.
EDI was hired in July to conduct the remediation step of the process, officials said the company reviewed its predecessor’s efforts and found them to be inconsistent with the state’s actual rules, which state that remediation of affected units should take place immediately.
Both the DEP and DOE have weighed in and sided with EDI’s interpretation that PARS did not follow state guidelines.
In order to not make the same mistake, Roman said his company suggested to the district that it keep its water system open for use during the testing process.
“We are approaching this resampling event as if it were the initial sampling procedure that took place back in spring. At that time, you wouldn’t have shut off the water before you sampled it,” he said. “We’re trying to replicate the original process, so if we start shutting drinking fountains off now, it’s going to start impacting the normal operating conditions of the school.”
Though officials said keeping the water running during testing was crucial for accuracy, Hillsborough Education Association president Henry Goodhue raised some concerns for the health and safety of everyone inside the schools.
“When the testing originally occurred, we had the luxury of assuming that there would be no lead, but as time has gone on…we know for a fact that lead is present in some of our schools,” Goodhue said. “I appreciate that we have to mimic the conditions, but I am concerned that we are taking that step by possibly allowing staff or students to consume water that could turn around and have unsafe levels of lead at that point.”
While every outlet will be retested, Roman said those that had shown high levels of lead by PARS have already been addressed.
Over the next few weeks, Roman said EDI will be working with the district to identify every water outlet that students and staff use to consume water, including areas that are used to make coffee or to prepare food. He said he expected to get a complete list, with the help of school principals, by Nov. 3. Testing would then begin the following week.
“We tested all outlets, including bathroom sinks and other faucets that typically kids don’t drink out of. Now we’re going to be identifying all of those areas that kids or staff drink out of and we’re going to be retesting those,” Superintendent Dr. Jorden Schiff said.
In order to expedite the process, Roman said the company would analyze samples from each school, which generally takes upwards of two weeks to complete, while collecting samples at other schools.