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Answers Demanded For Elevated Lead Levels

By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 16, 2007; B04

D.C. Board of Education President Robert C. Bobb has demanded that Superintendent Clifford B. Janey explain why parents and officials were not told about elevated levels of lead in drinking water found in five of 16 schools during the past six months.

Tests conducted between June 2006 and last month showed that lead levels at Bowen, Hearst, Kenilworth and Watkins elementary schools and Alice Deal Junior High School exceeded federal standards for drinking water.

Bobb said he sent an e-mail to Janey on Wednesday, demanding more information but had not received an answer by late yesterday.

"It's totally disheartening when we have elevated levels of lead and the superintendent didn't bother to inform the board of the problem," said Bobb, who took office this year. In his position as city administrator, Bobb oversaw the District's effort in 2004 to address lead contamination in water.

"This speaks to a level of incompetence that is beyond comprehension," Bobb said in an interview. "I believe people in responsible positions who are unresponsive should be sent home permanently."

Audrey Williams, a spokeswoman for the school system, said Janey was leaving it up to individual schools to inform parents about the lead problems. Janey did not respond to requests for further comment.

A spokeswoman for D.C. Water and Sewer Authority said pipes supplying water to the schools are made of iron and would not contain lead, indicating that pipes or equipment in the schools was to blame.

Cornell S. Brown Jr., executive director of the facilities department, said water fountains that registered high levels of lead were shut off immediately. He said they would not be turned on until repairs are made and new tests show that they are free of lead. "We always look out for the best interest of children," Brown said. "When we see a hazard, we work as quickly as possible to fix that hazard."

Brown said water fountains at the remaining 124 schools will be inspected and repaired by the end of the year through the school board's emergency "blitz" repair program. Board members last month agreed to spend $75 million to repair restrooms and water fountains on an accelerated schedule.

But the water fountain repair program will be delayed by the system's boiler "blitz," which it launched last week to address heating problems in more than 30 schools, including four that closed.

The test data became public on Wednesday when D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) discussed them at a hearing for the Committee on Public Works and the Environment, which he chairs.

A report on Watkins Elementary School on Capitol Hill, prepared by the Beltsville engineering firm SaLUT Inc., showed in an initial draw that 10 of 13 water fountains contained elevated levels of lead. A report on Kenilworth Elementary in Kenilworth showed in an initial draw that six of 15 fountains had elevated lead levels. One fountain in a kindergarten classroom at Kenilworth showed lead levels of 1,200 parts per billion. The Environmental Protection Agency recommends that school water fountains be taken out of service if the lead level exceeds 20 parts per billion.

According to the EPA, children exposed to lead are susceptible to a range of learning and health problems, including reduced IQ, hyperactivity, stunted growth and hearing loss.

Vice President Carolyn N. Graham, who was on the board when the water tests were conducted last year, said she had not been informed about the water tests. Parents and council member Graham also said they were not told about the water problems.

"The levels are alarming, as they may very well lead to elevated levels of lead in the schoolchildren's blood," said the interim director of the Department of the Environment, Corey R. Buffo, at a D.C. Council hearing Wednesday.

Terri Garvin, whose two daughters attend Hearst in Cleveland Park, said the school PTA bought bottled water for students in 2004 when tests showed high lead levels in the water fountains. Garvin, the former president of the organization, said the school discontinued the service when central office officials told them the water was clean.

"To find out the water is not fine is startling," Garvin said.

"It's an old building so you know there will be a problem," she added. "The water isn't the problem. The problem is the lack of awareness that you even have a problem."

Staff writer Theola Labbé contributed to this report.

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