WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange School District has taken corrective action after testing found that water from 27 of the 304 district taps analyzed last April contained lead amounts exceeding the Environmental Protection Agency’s action level of 15 parts per billion.
According to the district’s lead report, actions taken to address the situation included replacing faucets, installing lead filters and switching out affected fountains for new ones. Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Rutzky told the West Orange Chronicle that the WOSD implemented these responses throughout the summer after receiving the test results in June. Rutzky said Buildings and Grounds Director Robert Csigi determined what actions would be appropriate in each particular case.
Follow-up testing conducted by Agra Environmental and Laboratory Services after the corrective responses were completed found that all of the taps in Roosevelt Middle School and Gregory, Mount Pleasant, Kelly and St. Cloud elementary schools no longer had water with elevated lead levels. Rutzky said that the district still has not received the follow-up results for Edison Central Six School, West Orange High School and Washington Elementary School. If it does not get the findings before school starts, he said that the eight taps in question in those buildings will remain covered up so that no student can use them.
None of the taps in Hazel Elementary School, Liberty Middle School, Redwood Elementary School, the district administration building or the bus garage were found to have water with actionable lead levels. Rutzky said that most of the schools — including every elementary school — had all their taps analyzed, though a few with a multitude of fountains just had a majority of theirs done. If a significant amount of lead had been discovered at those locations, Rutzky said the district would have gone back and tested all of the taps. But no such problem was found.
The WOSD would have preferred to see that no taps exceeded the EPA’s action level, Rutzky said. But the superintendent pointed out that many of the school system’s taps are quite old — some buildings date back 100 years — which is likely why lead was found in them.
What mattered to the district, Rutzky said, was that the lead problem was corrected as soon as possible.
“No matter what the level was, any time it was above that (EPA) requirement we went ahead and took corrective action,” Rutzky told the Chronicle in an Aug. 22 phone interview. “Anything that came back above the EPA guideline, we immediately put a bag over the top of it and secured it so that it could not be used. It was done the next day. And then we went through the corrective-action process.”
The cost of those corrective actions and the testing that went before them amounted to a total of $14,355, according to Rutzky. But there is a chance that the school system might not lose any money. The superintendent said that the district has applied to receive a reimbursement of the funds it spent, which is allowed through state regulations that were passed by the New Jersey Board of Education in July. Those regulations mandate that all state schools test their water for lead within the next year, with all who comply becoming eligible to get their money back from the $10 million the state allocated for water testing.
But that cost could have been a lot higher for the WOSD. Board of Education President Laura Lab said the school system initially received estimates upward of $45,000 to test the taps, which she suspects might have been price gouging in the aftermath of lead being found in the water of Newark schools. So Lab contacted Assemblyman John McKeon’s office, and the district was directed to companies willing to do the work at a much more reasonable price.
And while she is not surprised that lead was found in the water in West Orange schools, considering the age of the buildings, Lab said she is pleased with how the board responded.
“The board acted immediately and was extremely proactive in unanimously supporting testing (at) our facilities,” Lab told the Chronicle in an Aug. 22 email. “Our first charge is to make sure our students are safe.”
Rutzky agreed that the well-being of district students is paramount. That is why the school system introduced a cyclical schedule last year, in which taps from four schools per year are randomly tested for lead, he said. The superintendent said the WOSD will return to that schedule next year, but did not know which of the buildings will be tested next.
What Rutzky does know is that the district will make sure its children remain safe.
“The Board of Education and I are obviously always concerned about the safety of students and the staff,” Rutzky said. “That’s why it’s important that we continue to test the water. And where corrective action is needed, we will continue to provide the changes to make sure that all of the water outlets are safe.”
According to the New Jersey Department of Health, it is estimated that at least 20 percent of human exposure to lead may come from lead in water, with formula-fed infants getting 40 to 60 percent of their exposure from it. But the department also said that drinking lead found in water alone has not been attributed with elevated blood lead levels; it is the combination of drinking it along with other exposures — such as the consumption of lead paint chips — that could cause harm to one’s health. And then, children and fetuses are most susceptible to the negative effects of lead poisoning, which the department said include kidney damage, anemia and the impediment of brain development.