Although the lead-water content at Gilead Hill Elementary School in Hebron tests below the legal threshold set by the Environmental Protection Agency, a group of residents is demanding that officials do more to protect students and others who use the building.
“There should not be one more day that families do not know that there is lead in that water,” resident Nichole Collins said. “We have not yet heard anything that the water is safe, we heard that it’s not illegal, but we have not heard that it is safe.”
Under the federal Lead and Copper Rule, which was enacted in the 1990s and has been revised since then, if lead-water concentrations in drinking water exceed a level of 15 parts per billion, there must be corrective actions to control corrosion and inform the public.
The Board of Education says an environmental consultant has provided an independent review of data samples from the school, determining that test results fell within the requirements of the Lead and Copper Rule.
In a letter released this month, the board also claims various samples at numerous entry points and locations throughout the school have been tested randomly over the last decade and at the entry point of the system, all of which have been in compliance with the EPA, some data showing no detectable levels of lead.
“No further action is legally required,” it states, noting that more testing will be conducted this month and that per Chatham Health District recommendations, flushing of all of the school’s classroom faucets has begun. The consultant will be doing over 150 samples, 75 twice at different points and point of entry, by or on Dec. 21.
The board is then expected to share the report with the community, in addition to holding a public forum to address concerns, Board of Education Chairwoman Heather Petit said Friday.
Russell Melmed, Chatham health director, in letter submitted during a Dec. 12 Board of Selectmen meeting says his independent review of the water sampling echoed the board’s claims that the tests are in compliance with EPA levels.
He states the highest levels of lead that were found were in room 27, which had 9.9 parts per billion, and in the music room with 4 parts per billion.
“The remaining sampling sites coming back at very low levels, around 1 part per billion,” he writes.
Melmed also says that even though the EPA set the maximum contaminant level goal of zero, it is not an enforceable level.
But none of this consoled residents who attended the contentious meeting.
Collins argued that “legal” does not necessarily mean “safe,” and demanded better communication between the school board, town officials, and residents. Collins said she reviewed the data and the situation is not as safe as the school board says.
“It doesn’t take a chemist to see that 60 percent of samples in 2011, 80 percent of samples in 2014, and 60 percent of samples in 2017 detected lead, some of them quite high,” she said.
According to EPA’s website, young children are especially susceptible to the toxic effects of lead, which even at low levels has be linked to damage to the central and peripheral nervous system, learning disabilities, shorter stature, impaired hearing, and impaired formation and function of blood cells.
Collins asked board members during the Dec. 12 meeting if they would drink the water at the preschool to Grade 2 school.
Board Chairman Daniel Larson was the sole board member to raise his hand. He said he would be interested in knowing how many other towns in the state have comparable lead levels.
A letter from resident Julie VanOstrand, who has a 6-year-old son at Gilead Hill who has been drinking from the fountains, said she’s frustrated because the school system was aware of the low levels of lead and did not notify parents. As a result, parents did not have the opportunity to act.
“In order to right these past wrongs, the parents of Gilead Hill, and myself, are willing to forgive the school system for not informing us of the lead and acting on it by testing for it properly if the proper steps to rectify this are taken now,” she wrote.
She suggested immediately shutting off water fountains, informing parents about the situation via email, flushing the system daily, and cooking with water from a different source.
“We put trust into our leaders in our community and our schools to always do the right thing. … I am concerned that there is any lead in those pipes at the school,” PTA President Katie O’Connor Hurley said. “Until we know 100 percent that there is zero lead in that water, shut them off. Let parents know that there is a potential that there is lead there. I know I made formula bottles in that school from that water.”
Resident Nicole Matthews, who has a 5-year-old at Gilead Hill, said the real issue is transparency.
“We are glad that stuff is being done, but the parents need to know in the meantime, you can’t wait for those results,” she said. “And I don’t think it’s being done proactively, I think it’s being done reactively.”
Town Manager Andrew Tierney said more sampling was to be done this week and the system was to be flushed again. But turning off water fountains needs a vote by the Board of Education.
During a Thursday school board meeting, members met for more than an hour with their attorneys, Shipman & Goodwin, during an executive session.
Ultimately, no vote was taken to turn off the water.
“Just so we’re clear, if we’re still allowing lead to be in the water and no active action of notifying parents, then we will go to the social media, we will go to the news sources … we will go to whoever we need to go to so that the parents know,” Collins warned selectmen.
School officials since have notified parents and guardians of the water sampling data and have given parents the option of sending in bottled water with their students. Also, the Parks and Recreation Department has disseminated information to its program participants.
“This is a contentious issue,” Selectman John Collins, who is not related to Nichole Collins, acknowledged.
He commended the efforts of the school system, namely the hiring of an independent consultant and flushing of the water system, and offered an assessment of the situation as an environmental professional.
“I do think the threshold concentration of 15 parts per billion is important, but it was never developed to protect human beings,” he said. “It’s not a health-based standard, it’s a practical standard, it’s a cost-based standard and it doesn’t protect children. So, I think our policy has to be going forward should be to reduce concentrations in a practical way.”
Collins said he’s spent decades working in environmental chemistry, earning a doctorate in the field with a focus on iron and transition metals. Collins is trained in human health risk assessment and started a remediation company, he said.
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Collins has spoken out at town meetings, including the Hebron Elementary School Water Remediation Committee, which has recently accepted a bid to replace all of the pipes at Hebron Elementary where lead also has been found. He, too, said he’s frustrated, mostly by an inability to obtain water sample data from the school board.
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After several attempts, he ultimately got what he was looking for through a freedom-of-information request.
At the meeting, Tierney disagreed with some of John Collins’ assessment.
“The 15 parts per billion is the standard set by the state that the school has been reactive to, and up until recently they didn’t think they had to do anything other than that because they thought that was the compliance level,” Tierney said. “Zero percent lead is a goal, it’s not a standard or regulation. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t get there, but I don’t think the Board of Education at the time thought that they were trying to or supposed to get to zero lead."
He added, “Now that John has brought it to our attention, we all agree that no lead is good lead. Now they are going to work towards doing that.”