ELIZABETH, NJ — The Elizabeth School District is firing back at parents in the district who continue to criticize the district’s handling of elevated water lead levels in most of the district’s 41 schools.
Lead testing results from the district’s 41 schools show that 37 of those schools have elevated levels of lead in water sources throughout the schools, with several of those schools having alarmingly high levels.
The state-regulated limit for lead is currently 15 parts per billion.
Parents in the district have publicly admonished Elizabeth Superintendent of Schools Olga Hugelmeyer, along with BOE members, for not properly addressing the issue, as well as voicing concern over what they say is a lack of transparency in the district.
Parent-advocates in the district have said that they have been asking the district to test for lead over the last few years, yet the district ignored these requests. Furthermore, parents allege that the BOE chose not to perform lead testing in the district until the state Board of Education mandated the testing in July.
Districts that test within 365 days will be eligible for state reimbursement through $10 million allocated for water testing in the state budget.
Parents also state that once the results were back, the district did not post them until weeks later, and that parents did not know where to find these results once they were posted.
But Pat Politano, spokesperson for Elizabeth schools, told LocalSource that the information given to the media by several parent-advocates was misconstrued and inaccurate. “Nothing is more important to the Elizabeth Board of Education and administration than the health and safety of the school community,” Politano said in an email. “The district acted before the state even required testing for lead in water and has been completely transparent in this process.”
According to Politano, the district held an informational symposium and sought proposals for lead testing in the schools in June — more than a month before the state adopted regulations. “The district tested 2,905 water points and made the results of those tests public within 24 hours of receipt at a public board of education meeting,” said Politano. “The results are all posted on the district’s website.”
Politano maintains that all drinking sources were safe before the start of the school year. “Every single source of drinking water or water for food preparation was safe before school opened,” said Politano. “Some sinks and similar utility sources were shut down or marked only for hand washing while they were being remediated. Elizabeth’s health officer has reported that there has never been an instance of a person being ill from lead in the drinking water in the city — from any source — and is available to direct parents who have concerns.”
Parent-advocate and BOE candidate Christina Moreira told LocalSource that the district only acted at parents’ continued urging to do so. “I went before the board at least three times asking for them to release the lead test result from the 2013 testing so that parents could have their children tested for lead if there were high levels found in that particular school,” Moreira said. “They have, till this day, not released them. I was able to obtain the results myself after several OPRA requests and posted the results on Elizabeth Parents and Students Care. We kept asking for the water to be retested, as did board member Carlos Trujillo, and to provide bottled water until it was done. The board did not act, although several board members donated several cases of water to the Flint, Michigan water crisis at one of our board meetings.”
Moreira also maintains that the district only tested because of mounting pressure by parents at school board meetings, which she says coincided with the state’s mandatory testing requirement. “They kept saying they were going above and beyond in doing this, but the truth is they had to. It was required,” she said.
Maria Lorenz, a parent-advocate in the district and a candidate running for the school board, told LocalSource that the district has not yet released or informed parents about water testing in 2013. “Only in March of this year was a communication sent out about the ‘concern’ for lead in the water — that’s three years too late,” Lorenz said. “The parents have a right to know what is happening then and now. No apology has been given by the board despite their lack of inaction in 2013, and I’m not holding my breath for one despite the fact that three board members who are mayor-backed sat there and knew about it. It’s despicable. That was their ‘transparency’ then. Not much has changed now. They failed, period.”
Lorenz also noted that it is the superintendent of schools that parents want to hear from, not the spokesperson for the district. “I would prefer also to hear from the superintendent and the board members, not Pat Politano who is paid to spin things since he’s also their campaign strategist,” Lorenz said. “It’s amazing how the board members get to drink bottled water at board meetings, yet our kids weren’t even offered as much or given as much. So much for their ‘Children First’ rhetoric. Children are first alright — the first to drink lead.”
Luis Cuoto, director of Plant, Property, and Equipment for Elizabeth schools, shared the district’s testing and remediation process with LocalSource. “The water outlets identified for testing were flushed the day before for a few seconds.” Cuoto told LocalSource, who said that outlets can be flushed between eight and 48 hours before sampling.
Cuoto said the sampling was conducted early in the morning in most district schools — well before staff and students arrive — so that the water inside the buildings is not disturbed. According to Cuoto, water samples were collected by the consultant sampling team in 250-ml plastic bottles supplied by the testing lab. The samples were then submitted to a testing lab for analysis. “The initial remediation for outlets that exceeded the action level of 15 PPM was to be shut down as soon as we received the results,” said Cuoto.
According to Cuoto, a follow-up remediation plan for outlets exceeding the action limit is already in place. Bubbler and other plumbing components on water fountains will be replaced as required and will be retested and kept shut off until passing results are received. If the tests reveal that the water is still above action limit, the valve and piping to outlet will be replaced, along with the installation of an National Sanitation Foundation (NSF)-certified in-line filter for lead reduction. A filter replacement schedule will be based on manufacturer recommendations.
For food preparation water sources, said Cuoto, a NSF-certified faucet filter will be installed. And some faucets and plumbing components will be replaced, as required. Once installed, the faucet filters will be tested and, if the results comply with regulations, the filters will be removed. If
still above action limit, the valve and piping will be replaced and a NSF-certified in-line filter will be installed.
Cuoto said that a sign reading, “Do Not Drink — Safe for Washing Only,” was posted in each location where the test result was above the action level.
Regarding sinks inside the classrooms, said Cuoto, those not necessary for immediate use will remain shut off until additional remediation is implemented.
According to Cuoto, 15 water fountains were remediated and re-tested with passing results and service was restored. In addition, two food-prep faucets were remediated and re-tested with passing results. Nine other outlets were remediated and re-tested with passing results, said Cuoto, and service has been restored.
Cuoto said that the district is still waiting on some results. “We are currently waiting for the result of re-testing for 20 more outlets,” he said. “The remaining 15 drinking fountains were remediated and are prepared for sampling and testing.”