EPA won’t probe complaint over lead in water in Amherst schools

Staff Writer
Published: 10/11/2018 12:27:11 AM

AMHERST — The Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of the Inspector General is declining to pursue an investigation into a complaint from a Shutesbury resident that students in the Amherst public schools are needlessly being provided drinking water with elevated levels of lead.

In a recent email response to retired hydrogeologist Michael Hootstein, who filed the complaint in September, a representative from the Office of the Inspector General’s hotline wrote, “Upon review of the information you provided, the EPA OIG has determined that it does not warrant further consideration and will close the matter. Thank you for your time and concern.”

Hootstein, who has a grandchild at the Amherst Regional Middle School, argued that EPA Region 1 Drinking Water Chief Jane Downing and state Department of Environmental Protection Deputy Director Douglas Fine assisted Amherst-Pelham Schools Superintendent Michael Morris “to knowingly expose more than 2,600 district children to elevated lead in Amherst School drinking water each and every school day.” This activity, Hootstein claims, is in violation of children’s and parents’ bodily integrity rights under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and in conflict with the state’s felony poisoning statute.

Hootstein also has an active civil rights lawsuit, which he filed against the Amherst-Regional School Committee a year ago in U.S. District Court in Springfield. That seeks a series of immediate corrective steps, including installation of filtration systems and provision of bottled water to students. He said he intends to amend this lawsuit by seeking $1 million in damages and to add the name of Morris, in his personal capacity as superintendent.

Morris said Wednesday that his comments from a year ago stand and that the district continues to maintain the lawsuit is without merit.

“We are proud of the work we have done in our district to ensure that the drinking water in our schools is safe for our children and staff,” Morris said.

Hootstein based his complaint on the 2016 testing results for lead and copper under the state’s voluntary Assistance Program for Lead in School Drinking Water program, a $2.75 million program in which the DEP and the University of Massachusetts Amherst coordinated to take water samples from nearly 1,000 schools across the state since April 2016.

In Hampshire County, 21 out of 25 participating schools were found to have high levels of lead in at least one fixture, often when samples of water were tested after being in the pipes for eight to 18 hours.

When at least one fixture surpassed federal “action levels,” the 15 parts per billion for lead and 1.3 parts per million for copper, schools were flagged. Statewide, 72 percent of school buildings had at least one fixture that tested high for either lead or copper.

Amherst schools were among those with a high level of lead, though not copper. But almost all the tests in Amherst were negative for lead when water ran for more than 30 seconds, a flushing protocol that the EPA suggests as a way to minimize potential consumption of lead.

Even though he acknowledges there is no state or federal regulation related to the safe amount of lead in school drinking water, Hootstein points to the concerns about lead consumption having negative neurological impacts on children, infants and fetuses.

“I can’t believe how reckless and irresponsible we all are to turn a blind eye to lead poisoning in our schools,” Hootstein said.

In fact, the EPA notes there is no federal law mandating testing of drinking water in schools and child care facilities, except for schools and child care facilities that own or operate their own public water supply. Those entities are regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, and EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule establishes a lead action level of 15 parts per billion for these water systems, though this action level for lead is not a health-based standard, but is instead based on EPA’s evaluation of available data on the ability of corrosion control to reduce lead levels at the tap.

Hootstein said what schools needs is remediation and real-time monitoring, and he supports a concept from Marc Edwards, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech University, who has suggested that schools have four or five individually plumbed lead-filtered hydration stations, with real-time warning systems when filters need changing. These could be installed at a $2,000 per unit cost.

“Michael has correctly identified this as a significant public health issue,” Edwards said.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, he said, has recommended the action level be set at one part of lead per billion or less, while the Food and Drug Administration is asking for the action level to be at 3 parts of lead per billion or less.

The EPA’s Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water this month issued an 80-page version of “3Ts for Reducing Lead in Drinking Water in Schools and Child Care Facilities: A Training, Testing and Taking Action Approach” that supplemented a previous publication from October 2006. This comes as the federal agency is in the process of revising the Lead and Copper Rule.

“Everyone know it’s inadequate. All around the country everyone is trying to work out how to get better without any official guidance,” Edwards said.

The hydration units would be cheaper than replacing leaded piping infrastructure, Edwards said, and it would also be less expensive than providing bottled water, as Baltimore has done for its schools, or attaching filters to each faucet or drinking fountain.

“This seems like a happy middle ground,” Edwards said.

Flushing is also not sufficient to solve the problem, he said. “Flushing protocol is very ineffective to the extent that some would say it’s not an effective method at all,” Edwards said.

Hootstein said he hopes his continued legal actions will eventually work to reduce the lead children are exposed to. “Lead is the easiest thing to get out of water,” Hootstein said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.

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