NEWARK, NJ - The Newark Board of Education wants to assure parents that the water will be safe to drink at all of Newark's public schools when students return to school in less than two weeks.
Despite elevated lead levels in drinking water in parts of the city, district officials said water in schools is safe to drink because the district has installed filters and is in compliance with a state-approved remediation plan.
“We are clear on what we are doing and we know that it is working,” said Superintendent Roger León at a business meeting on Tuesday. “Our children do not need to come to school with water bottles.”
Results for June 2019 tests conducted at Untermann Field near Chancellor Avenue Elementary School, University High School, Barringer High School, First Avenue Elementary and Abington Avenue Elementary show lead levels were below the federal action level of 15 parts per billion(ppb), according to documents obtained by TAPinto Newark.
A school district is separate from municipal government and responsible for its own testing and remediation. Districts must submit results to the state Department of Education (DOE) if lead levels exceed 15ppb. Otherwise, districts are only required to submit a statement of assurance that they are conducting testing.
State Education Department Spokesperson Carmen Cusido confirmed that NPS submitted its statement of assurance for the 2018-2019 school year in early July, noting that the district meets state submission requirements.
State law requires schools to test for lead every six years. Although latest lead updates were posted on March 2017, Newark Public Schools Business Administrator Valerie Wilson said the district tests monthly for close monitoring and compliance.
In 2016, the district installed three-cartridge filters that shut off water supply at full capacity on all operational water fountains and filters in kitchens with elevated lead levels. NPS spent nearly $1 million for accurate testing and immediate action.
“We are addressing any new incidences immediately. All drinking sources have been aggressively managed,” Wilson wrote in an email to TAPinto Newark. New water lines are installed by the district when needed, she said.
The district has been dealing with lead water level issues for more than a decade.
A top priority for the district in ongoing water remediation is providing staff and families with the proper information.
“There’s been cooperation with the mayor’s office, governor’s office, and EPA,” said Board member Tave Padilla, chairperson of the Operations and Athletics Committee that oversees facilities and safety. “There has been clear information drafted to share information and educate parents and students.”
A document answering frequently asked questions about lead reduction efforts and link to City of Newark Drinking Water Resources was posted on the NPS site earlier this month. The district plans to provide more information to families through robocalls.
León said families should continue following the city's guidelines for drinking water in their homes.
“We do not want anyone to misinterpret what we say about water in our buildings and in our facilities and think that their water, because of how it's organized in their respective houses, is also okay,” said León. “Filters in our schools and locations are working. They’re actually monitored and we’re required to do so because of what happened in 2016.”
The district has been testing and monitoring its water since 2001. Higher lead levels in schools were first documented in 2010.
More than 13% of water samples tested in the 2013-2014 school year surpassed federally acceptable lead levels. More than 15% of samples exceeded lead limits in 2014-2015. During 2015-2016, approximately 10% of water samples exceeded lead limits.
At the time, the district ordered more than 400 drinking water sources to be turned off at 30 Newark school buildings and began distributing bottled water.
The district developed a lead water testing sampling plan with the state Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That plan is the one still in place today.
“I am happy to say if any of our children or staff members are in our facilities, that the drinking water that’s coming out of our fountains is protected because of the filters that are there,” said León.
Soon, the district will convene school counselors, nurses and social workers to discuss comprehensive support plans for affected students and families.
Conversations coordinated by the newly reformed Office of Student Life should begin on August 29th.