Water tests trigger school fountain shutdowns

CHATHAM–In a letter sent to parents on June 17 Chatham Central School District Superintendent Cheryl Nuciforo released the preliminary results of water testing that revealed elevated levels of copper and lead in all three of the district’s school buildings.

Six drinking fountains and over 100 faucets showed “first draw” lead levels at or exceeding the EPA guideline of 20 parts per billion. Although many of the faucets are not used for water consumption, Ms. Nuciforo stressed the importance of taking precautionary steps.

“Our strategy was to immediately address any information that we had in our preliminary reports with a short term solution,” Ms. Nuciforo said in a June 22 interview. “We were anxious to let people know what the results were right away. This is all about being proactive and open about identifying if we have any kind of an issue,” she added.

All drinking fountains and the majority of problematic faucets were immediately shut off.

According to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, exposure to lead can have severe health effects such as brain and kidney damage, and young children are particularly at risk. However, at the time of the Chatham Central School District’s testing, most schools in New York the state were not required by law to test for elevated levels of copper and lead in drinking water.

“There was no requirement to do this,” said Superintendent Nuciforo. “But given what we saw in the news about other schools, we decided to be proactive to test to see if we had any issues in our buildings. We think it’s important to take care of our students and staff.”

Amy Schober, senior public health technician at the Columbia County Department of Health said Chatham Village municipal water samples did not contain elevated levels of copper and lead, and the presence of contaminants likely came from fixtures within the school buildings. In a letter sent to school superintendents around the state, the EPA regional administrator explained a variety of ways in which lead can enter drinking water, identifying “brass or chrome-plated brass faucets and fixtures with lead solder” as the most common problem.

In the case of the Chatham School District, the exact cause of the lead and copper contamination is still unknown, and more analysis of the results needs to be done in order to determine the district’s course of action.

Over the summer, Ms. Nuciforo will be working with the county Department of Health, Questar III BOCES and the district’s architect to determine a plan for remediation.

“We’re now engaged in the process of wrapping our heads around this and being more thoughtful about what the long term approaches will be,” said Ms. Nuciforo. “We’ll be conferring with the resources available to us.”

Once a more definitive analysis is complete, the school board Facilities Committee will make recommendations to the board as a whole for remediation. As a precautionary measure, the board has already allocated funds for such efforts in the 2017-18 school year budget.

Heightened concern for water safety in Columbia County comes as a result of national attention on environmental issues involving drinking water supplies in the wake of the recent water crisis in Flint, MI. In response, New York state recently enacted legislation requiring schools to conduct periodic water testing.

In a statement released to the public June 20, state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia praised Governor Cuomo and the New York State legislature for their actions, saying that “there is nothing more important than the safety of our children.”

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