BOE receives update on district water and air quality

WEST ORANGE, NJ — The West Orange Board of Education was updated about the indoor water and air quality of the district’s buildings at its May 20 meeting, with Robert Csigi, the district’s director of buildings and grounds, discussing the work that has been done to reduce CO2 levels in West Orange High School classrooms and legionella bacteria levels in all school buildings. According to Csigi, both have improved since last summer.

“The indoor air quality at this time of the year is very favorable; the concern is usually during the winter months when the classrooms are enclosed and when the windows are closed,” Csigi said at the meeting. “But needless to say, we need to do something.”

Csigi said the department has investigated options for fixing the air quality levels and has come up with eight possibilities, which include placing fans in the classrooms, repairing the vents and installing HVAC units.

“Some options are less expensive, but they’re still expensive,” Csigi said, mentioning that the district has spent approximately $84,000 on this issue so far. “We’re talking about millions of dollars to do all of this.”

BOE member Mark Robertson suggested applying for Sustainable Jersey grants to help pay for both the water and air quality issues in the buildings, but Csigi said there are no grants currently available.

“All of our schools are registered with Sustainable Jersey and that registration never expires,” Csigi said. “Being registered allows you to be part of that grant program. The unfortunate thing is that the grants are not available.” He said the next potential round of grants will be awarded in January of 2020.

When discussing repairs, Csigi said that while univents at WOHS can be repaired, this would only address the airflow into classrooms and ventilation and not solve any heating issues.

“It’s kind of like putting a Band-Aid on an open wound, but it did bring down the level of CO2 that was there and has gotten better,” Csigi said. “Now we’re just looking to see where we’re going with it in the future, and budget for those types of repairs.”

Besides WOHS, Hazel and Mt. Pleasant elementary schools were retested for CO2 levels, after they registered as having high levels in previous tests. According to Csigi, this most recent round of testing was successful and came back clear.

As far as legionella, Csigi said at the meeting that WOHS students would be able to use the school’s water fountains the next day, with the exception of three of the 28 fountains, which have minor levels of bacteria in them. Those three water fountains remain turned off.

“We’re going to look at replacing those to get the water quality down to nondetected,” Csigi said. “We still have concerns at the high school, but there are very low levels compared to what we originally had back in July of 2018. We’ve done some random testing throughout all of the schools and we have some concerns at Edison as well.”

He explained that Legionnaires’ disease cannot be contracted from drinking water; it can only be contracted by inhaling mist that contains legionella bacteria. Csigi also said the levels that have been detected at WOHS and Edison Middle School are so low that no one would be able to contract the disease. All kitchens and cafeterias in the district are free of legionella.

“We took all aerators off of the faucets, which minimizes the chance of the water being inhaled,” Csigi said.

The district has a water-management plan for WOHS and a similar plan for Edison, in addition to smaller plans for the district’s other school buildings. Csigi said the water systems will be flushed at least five times a year, predominantly in the summer when the buildings are not being actively used.

BOE Vice President Sandra Mordecai said the buildings and grounds department has done a good job repairing the damage, but that it took too long.

“This was a very slow, painful process,” she said at the meeting. “I know there was staff who came to every single meeting and asked whether or not the water was safe, so I wish it went a lot quicker.”

Robertson added that Csigi’s report should be posted on the district’s website and communicated to the public as well.

“There’s still perceptions of ‘How long do we have to use bottled water? Do we need to use bottled water? If someone has a compromised immune system, are they safe?’” he said. “These questions still need to be clearly answered and heavily promoted.”

In response to BOE member Terry Trigg-Scales’ question about how often water and air quality would be tested moving forward, Csigi said testing would be random.

“We haven’t decided how much we’re going to test,” he said. “If we find bacteria then we’ll flush out that area. If we do it at least once a year that will just confirm that what we’re doing is working and we’ll take it from there.”