Venango County School Districts Testing for Lead in Water Not Finding Many if Any Issues

| April 1, 2019

VENANGO CO., Pa. (EYT) – Local school districts seem to be ahead of the curve when it comes to testing for lead contamination in schools’ drinking water.

This is good news for local students considering a new report gave Pennsylvania an “F” for addressing the problem and a pair of state legislators last week introduced a bill to help rectify that.

In the second edition of PennEnvironment’s Get The Lead Out >study, the Commonwealth showed poor progress, given that Pennsylvania also received a failing grade in 2017.

Pennsylvania doesn’t currently require schools to test their drinking water or fix pipes or fixtures that contaminate water with lead, although State Representatives Karen Bobak and Austin Davis are hoping to change that by introducing House Bill 930, which would help address the threat of lead in drinking water in Pennsylvania’s Schools. If passed, the law would (a) require annual testing of all water in schools used for drinking and cooking and establishing best practices for testing; (b) Require test results to be disclosed to parents; (c) set a statewide standard for lead in school water to five parts per billion, the same standard for bottled water in the Commonwealth.

“As parents, we should be able to trust that schools are safe places to learn and play, but Pennsylvania is still failing to protect kids from lead in school drinking water,” said Ashleigh Deemer, Western Pennsylvania Director for PennEnvironment. “If passed, Representative Boback’s legislation would be a vast improvement, and go a long way toward actually getting the lead out of faucets and fountains in our schools.”

Although schools in Butler, Berks, Bucks, Lancaster, and Montgomery Counties, as well as in the cities of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, are finding lead in their water, locally that doesn’t seem to be an issue.

Of the 15 school districts serving Clarion, Venango, Jefferson, and Forest Counties contacted by EYT Media, nine responded with eight of those reporting no issues with lead.

KARNS CITY HAS SEEN SOME ISSUES

Only Karns City School District, while located in Butler County also serves a portion of Clarion County in the East Brady area, reported finding lead in its water when tested.

“We just discovered lead problems this year,” said Karns City Superintendent Eric Ritzert. “The previous test we did, two or three years ago, we didn’t have any issues.”

According to Ritzert, when the issue was found, bottled water was provided in the buildings and fixtures were turned off.

“We pulled multiple samples from all three buildings, and it brought to light concerns,” Ritzer said. “So, we addressed those issues.”

“We remediated some of the elementary issues, replaced some water fountains and faucets that tested high. We did several rounds of flushing out the system and worked with a company to provide oversight to remediate all of that. We had a neutral third party helping.”

While the issues at the elementary buildings seem to be solved, Ritzert said the district is still providing bottled water at the high school.

“Remediating these problems does take some time, but we’re working on it,” Ritzer said. “We are still working through the process at the high school. We hope by the beginning of next school year to have everything fixed. We are using bottled water for drinking and cooking at the high school. There is no consumption of water. Running water is just used for the restrooms and hand washing.”

According to Ritzert, there is a tab on the district’s website under district news where the district reports its water testing, and he is a big proponent of testing.

“Act 39 basically encouraged districts to do lead and copper testing or hold a meeting to explain why they didn’t,” Ritzert said. “We chose to do testing, and that point discovered copper and lead issues.

“I would like to see something to help clearly identify protocols for schools to abide by as well as financial help for remediating problems. I believe testing is a good thing.”

A-C VALLEY HAD COPPER ISSUES AT ELEMENTARY SCHOOL BUT NO LEAD ISSUES

According to A-C Valley Superintendent David McDeavitt, while the school didn’t find any lead issues, it did have a small issue with elevated levels of copper at the elementary school at the beginning of the 2018-19 school year.

“We have not encountered any lead issues in the district,” said McDeavitt, who noted that the district has been testing its water since the summer of 2017 when testing became a hot issue. “What we did encounter at the start of this school year – and we aren’t required to test for this but did – was some elevated levels of copper. We had just put in brand new copper lines in the elementary school over the summer, and we believe that is what led to that. So, for a couple of months, we didn’t use the water and provided bottled water. But, we have since re-tested, and the levels are back to normal. But, we have had no issues with lead at all.”

According to McDeavitt, in its continued quest to be ahead of the game when it comes to testing for lead in the water, A-C Valley has secured an $8,000.00 grant to help offset the cost of testing for lead in its water.

“With this money, we will be able to test more often and at different sites,” McDeavitt said.

BROCKWAY HAS BEEN TESTING FOR A FEW YEARS

In Jefferson County, Brockway Superintendent Jeff Vizza said the district has been testing for lead in its water for a few years now.

“We have an outside agency come in and do it for us,” Vizza said. “We want to make sure the water is safe for all of our students and staff.”

Vizza said he isn’t aware of any instances where lead contamination was found in the district’s water, but noted he has only been with the district for three years.

“This year we know we’re in good shape,” said Vizza, who indicated that results of the testing are made public at a school board meeting. “We’re confident that the lead is not a factor for us right now.”

FRANKLIN SUPERINTENDENT WORRIED THAT NEW LAW WOULD BE ANOTHER UNFUNDED MANDATE

Franklin Superintendent Pamela Dye understands why testing should be done and notes that the district has already done testing. But, she is concerned that the proposed law would be another unfunded mandate put on school districts.

“As a superintendent and parent with a child still in school, I understand the concerns parents and legislatures have regarding the potential for contaminated water and the accountability needed to ensure the safety of children,” said Dye. “However, this mandate can be added to another long list of unfunded state mandates which ultimately places the burden of cost on school districts also known as the taxpayers.”

Dye noted that the Department of Environmental Protection has required Franklin to test the water at Victory Elementary because the school uses well water, which is more susceptible to lead issues.

“We have it professionally tested once per month by MicroBac,” Dye said. “ We also have staff members do checks every other day.”

The other buildings in the school district all have city water and are checked once per year.

“There have been no problems in the past,” Dye said. “I don’t think that will change, but if there is a problem, we obviously would fix it.”

Dye said the district has had two of its maintenance people go to school for testing, so they can do the testing in-house instead of paying someone else to do it.

KEYSTONE HAD WHAT IT BELIEVED TO BE A FALSE FLAG, RECTIFIED ISSUE NOW EVERYTHING TESTS WELL

At the Keystone School District, the district did have one faucet in a non-student area that flagged an issue, but not necessarily for lead.

“The faucet, which was in a non-student area, was all corroded,” said Superintendent Shawn Algoe. “They told us that could have flagged a false positive. So, we changed out the faucet and retested, and it was negative.”

Algoe said the district has tried to be proactive in its testing.

“We tested July 25, 2018,” explained Algoe. “We had the discussion (about testing) as a building and ground committees and as a board and elected to test. We tested multiple locations in both buildings, and our intent is to continue to test annually. We will continue to do that, and if there is ever an issue, we will follow protocols to have remediation.”

According to Algore, the district tested for more than just lead and metals.

“We also tested for coliform and E. coli,” Algoe said. “We tested multiple fountains, kitchen faucets, water filters.”

Algoe believes the proposed law makes sense.

“The bill makes sense,” Algoe said. “In today’s world, you need to be proactive in your approach to make sure there is safe drinking water.”

PUNXSUTAWNEY STARTED TESTING THIS SCHOOL YEAR

Punxsutawney School District started testing at the start of the 2018-19 school year, according to Superintendent Thomas Lesniewski.

“Everything was clear from that test,” Lesniewski said. “We plan on testing regularly from this point forward.”

Lesniewski believes Punxsutawney won’t run into many if any problems because it gets its water from Punxsutawney Borough.

“We’re pretty confident now that the borough is our source for water,” Lesniewski said. “Before the consolidation (of schools), we had more concerns because of the wells we used. Now, our current water source is Punxsutawney Borough, and we’re confident in the water supply.”

Lesniewski was aware of the bill proposed in the house.

“That wouldn’t affect our operation and methods here at all,” Lesniewski said. “We already announce and publicize our testing. Whatever state standards they set, we’ll have to deal with if our local supply doesn’t happen to meet those standards. But, I think now that our water source is the borough. We’re confident in our water supply.”

C-L, NORTH CLARION, UNION ALL TESTING

Clarion-Limestone, North Clarion, and Union all confirmed that they have tested for lead in their water supply prior to the 2018-19 school year without having issues.

“We did testing,” Donna Smith of the C-L District Office said after checking with Superintendent Amy Glasl. “Everything was in compliance. There were no findings.”

North Clarion Superintendent Steve Young said the same thing.

“We tested prior to the start of the school year,” Young said. “We are on municipal water, so even prior to new guidelines, they were testing the water here several times of years. With the new protocol, we tested it in both buildings and everything was fine.”

Union School District also gets its water from Rimersburg and Sligo Boroughs and had no issues when it was tested in August of 2018.

“It was all safe,” Superintendent Jean McCleary said. “We get our water from the boroughs, so that water goes through their testing system. It’s not like we have well water, but I do know some districts do. Because we get what we consider town water, it gets tested.”

McCleary said once the district tested its water, it reported the results of the test at a school board meeting.

“Back in August, we did that, and we’ll do that every year before the next school year,” McCleary said. “I can’t comment on the statewide standard. We hired a contractor, and there was an actual chain of custody for how the samples were acquired and who they went to. It was a whole process to prevent anyone from tampering with the results.”

While a call to Clarion School District wasn’t immediately returned, former Superintendent Mike Stahlman, who is now the Executive Director of the IU 6, said the district did check its water for lead before the start of the 2018-19 school year when he was still the superintendent and no problems were found.

Calls to Cranberry, Forest Area, Oil City, Redbank Valley, and Sugar Grove School Districts inquiring about their testing by EYT Media were not returned as of March 28.

Editor’s Note: Aly Delp contributed to this story


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