Water at Kalifornsky Beach Elementary School failed tests for toxic lead contamination. This week, Kenai Peninsula Borough maintenance workers are installing a chemical system to fix the problem.
But concerned parents are asking if their children have been exposed to a hazard, why the fix took so long, if it will work better than a previous failed fix and why they were not notified earlier.
Water samples taken April 15 in the school showed lead levels above the Environmental Protection Agency Action Level in eight of 10 sample sites. One reading, from the sink in Room 1, was about 500 times the threshold of 0.015 milligrams per liter.
Parents got word in the school newsletter dated Sept. 29 that the school had failed the lead tests and was going on bottled water.
"There is no excuse for something taking that long," said parent Cathy Weyand.
Long concerned about water quality, Weyand was upset that her concerns last year were brushed aside and that children were drinking the school water until the end of last week. She is calling other parents and plans to have her daughter tested for signs of lead poisoning, she said.
Meanwhile, borough and school officials assert that the children are safe and that school district responses have been appropriate.
"All the procedures were followed, and all the precautions were followed," said Dave Spence, the director of operations and planning for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.
For one thing, the lead amounts in the tests represent a worst-case scenario. Samples are taken first thing in the morning after water sits in the pipes overnight and absorbs metals from corroded plumbing. As faucets and toilets run, contaminated water flushes out and clean water replaces it.
Since 1996, when the borough noted irregularities in the K-Beach school's water, custodians have flushed the system by running water every morning before children arrive, said Malcolm McBride, the borough's maintenance contracts coordinator.
"I would not consider the water at K-Beach Elementary to be harmful," he said.
The worst lead problem reported in the area was in Nanwalek. The entire village population was tested, and the community's water system overhauled. Despite having some of the worst drinking water lead levels ever reported in Alaska, all the blood tests came back normal, McBride said.
But looking back over K-Beach Elementary's water woes reveals a history of confusion, miscommunication, mixed signals and lack of continuity.
"It is kind of a convoluted story," said David Litchfield, the environmental specialist with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation who oversees the school's water quality.
In 1993, the federal EPA passed regulations requiring that public facilities such as schools have their water tested for lead and copper. Lead can leach out of a solder used in plumbing construction before the EPA banned it in 1983. In Alaska, the EPA contracts with ADEC to monitor the testing.
The borough maintenance department, which takes care of school building upkeep, started annual testing in 1993. K-Beach was one school that flunked.
Since that time, the school and several others around the district have been on and off bottled water and water treatments designed to minimize the leaching.
In 1995, the borough installed a chemical treatment system to fix the plumbing at K-Beach. The system was designed to inject sodium silicate, also called water glass, described as a "safe product" that coats the inside of piping to stop corrosion and metal leaching.
It didn't work.
The injection treatment system was supposed to be a prototype, but the person working with it retired and no one else was quite sure what to do with it, McBride said.
A series of confusing test results followed. In 1997 the water samples passed the EPA test. In 1998 they were high. In 1999 they were low.
"Nobody really knew what was going on," Litchfield said.
By that time, borough maintenance supervisors suspected a problem. After the rosy results from December 1999, they ordered a retest.
"All those samples passed," McBride said. "But there were some comments made by the person who collected that led us to believe the samples were not collected properly."
They sampled again in mid-April. McBride got the results April 28 and described them as a red flag.
"This is the first time we've had that many failures at that facility," he said.
By that time, the borough had already decided to replace the sodium silicate treatment system at K-Beach with a newer version over the summer vacation.
Normally McBride would have passed the test results to Spence at a May 2 meeting of the borough and district water specialists. But apparently he didn't.
Meanwhile, the ADEC main office in Anchorage got the results May 4. Despite the abnormal readings, the results were not logged or passed to Litchfield in the Soldotna office until June 13.
Litchfield ascribed the delay to "data entry stuff."
And although the state agency computer issued a violation for lead contamination, the system failed to flag it for Litchfield's attention.
"I don't think it actually alerted me that it was a violation," he said.
"I guess there was some fault on my part that I didn't catch this, and some fault on the school's part that they should have been more proactive."
Positive test results from years past gave everybody a "false sense of security," he speculated.
Spence said he only learned about the results in August, when school staff were returning to work and the new K-Beach principal, Trena Richardson, asked about the water tests.
McBride acknowledged that the notification fell through the cracks.
"I'm afraid so," he said. "It may have been August before (school officials) were notified. That is primarily because it was a retest and taken out of synch.
"It was so close to the end of the school year. ... (Maintenance workers) were supposed to get on it first thing this summer. Unfortunately, the physical work was not done."
The technician trained to install the chemical treatment was on vacation and then on medical leave.
"He wasn't able to do it in that time frame," McBride explained.
Spence attributed part of the delay to turnover and a heavy workload within the borough. A new maintenance director and risk manager began work this summer.
"They are really hampered by the short season," Spence said. "There were a number of projects that were not done over the summer."
The borough did not notify him of the test results until he specifically asked.
After Spence got the news that the school's water had failed the test badly, he called ADEC personnel. Litchfield was out of town, so he met with others from the Soldotna office. They advised Spence that the proper response was to either initiate daily flushing of the water lines or switch to bottled water.
"We are doing both," he said.
Spence met with the principal, and then with the school's site council.
Richardson said she was reassured talking with DEC.
"DEC wasn't very concerned about it because there are no documented cases of lead poisoning on the Kenai Peninsula," she said.
Spence said he came away from the meeting with DEC with the understanding that the flushing procedures already being done at the school were adequate to protect the children.
"The decision to put bottled water back in the school was based on installing the new system," he said.
The installation is under way, McBride said Thursday. Borough crews plan to adjust the chemical flows over the four-day weekend while children are not at school. After the system is in place, the school will remain on bottled water for perhaps a year, until follow-up testing shows the water is pure.
At the meeting with the site council, the decision was made to send a notification out to parents. Richardson requested that the borough write a memo she could include in the school newsletter.
Since the notice went out and Weyand began calling around, several parents have called Spence to express concerns. He said he is happy to answer questions.
But Weyand said she is unhappy about the way the situation has been handled.
She critiqued the time delay in getting the test results out to the public, the notification at the back of the routine newsletter and the lack of checks and balances to assure that past treatments worked and flushing is done properly. She said she intends to organize a meeting for concerned parents to ask questions.
"People are pretty upset," she said.
McBride expressed confidence that people will be satisfied in the long run with the results.
The borough has eight schools on bottled water. All are at some stage of being repaired or have been fixed and are awaiting final clearance through testing.
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