LENOX >> Recent water quality testing in the town's municipal buildings and schools have revealed slightly elevated levels of lead at four faucets — seldom used for drinking — in Morris Elementary School.
The tests, a year ahead of the state-required schedule and expanded beyond the normal requirements, have prompted a precautionary shutdown of the drinking water supply at the school until the source of the lead contamination is identified and repaired, according to schools Superintendent Timothy Lee.
Bottled water will be supplied to about 30 students in Grades 1 through 5 attending the two-week summer "Jump Start" Title 1 academic warmup program starting Monday, and to anyone else using the building, he told The Eagle.
Although lead and copper can be toxic if consumed at elevated doses, Lee pointed out in a letter mailed to the school community, "the district has no evidence of a cumulative health risk to students, staff or other building users." Previous test results at the school in 2011 were normal, he pointed out.
The tests conducted last month at the behest of Town Hall and school officials showed that town water, tested annually and singled out for its purity, was lead-free entering the school.
"We don't want to panic people or give people the impression that this is a serious public health risk to our building users because we don't have any evidence to suggest that," he said.
"What I'd like people to know is that this is something that the school district and the town did proactively; it wasn't required for us to retest this year," he said. "The events in other parts of the country triggered some thinking about our schools and our public buildings."
The superintendent cited the water crisis in Flint, Mich., contamination reported in some Oregon schools and drinking-water contamination in Hoosick Falls, N.Y., as factors leading to the decision to test Lenox water a year ahead of the state schedule.
Normally, the state requires two samples of water for testing from each building; at Morris, 36 samples were taken, Lenox Public Works Superintendent Sean VanDeusen said.
The Department of Environmental Protection imposes a stringent "action level" when lead is detected at 15 parts per billion or more. The Morris faucets produced a score of 17 in the Title 1 office, 21 in a kitchen sink and a pot-filler, and 23 in the paraprofessional office, while the remaining 32 samples were normal.
The four fixtures are rarely used as direct sources for drinking, Lee said.
The faucets are close together in the "original footprint" of the Morris school near the boiler room and the cafeteria before a 1994 renovation and expansion. The renovation included the replacement of original plumbing with modern copper pipes.
No lead infiltration was found at water fountains elsewhere in the school. There were two rounds of testing: one in June and a followup in early July to confirm the initial results, VanDeusen said.
At Lenox Memorial Middle and High School, testing of all fixtures used for drinking water produced no evidence of lead contamination at or above the DEP's action level, Lee said.
The goal was to take samples from all sources of water consumption in the town's two school buildings, he said.
VanDeusen stressed that water-quality tests at all other town-owned buildings, including Town Hall, the library, the Lenox Community Center, the Lenox Children's Center, firehouses and the DPW garage, yielded clean bills of health. Typically, there are trace levels of lead in test results, he added, far below any threshold of concern.
"We have never in the history of DEP and EPA testing hit a violation in our lead and copper levels," VanDeusen said in an interview. "I have all the confidence in the world in our water. Anything coming through our lines and our mains is clean."
"I was taken aback," he said. "Public health is my job, providing clean water, I teared up a little bit. But the source of the town water supply is as pure as it can be."
VanDeusen immediately notified the DEP and was referred to Rick Larson, a department lead-contamination specialist based at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, who is monitoring the town's cleanup plan at the Morris school.
In order to track down the source of the lead contamination and ensure that it has not spread beyond the four faucets out of 36 in the school, the town has hired the engineering firm AECOM to resolve the problem within 30 days. The engineers began the work last week.
The engineers are tracking down a potential source of lead in a section of pipe or a joint in the older part of the school for repair before the start of the school year on Aug. 31.
Selectman Edward Lane emphasized that the testing program devised by VanDeusen, Lee and Town Manager Christopher Ketchen goes well above and beyond state-required testing "just to get to a comfort level if there was any kind of a problem in the school."
The testing is far more extensive than ever attempted in the past, VanDeusen said.
"We're going to have to be aggressive to deal with this as it is," he said. "There's nothing more important than the health of the children and we want to get this taken care of."
VanDeusen cautioned that in theory, the entire water system at Morris could be compromised "because you have plumbing coming in, that water is going everywhere, so we have to assume the worst-case scenario and then back up as the testing proves otherwise."
The town is paying AECOM about $19,000 for the testing program.
For the rest of the summer, drinking supplies at Morris will be restricted to bottled water, Lee said, "until engineers isolate the source and/or ensure that there can be no migration of contaminants to other areas of the building."
But if re-testing results remain incomplete when classes resume, bottled drinking water will continue to be provided.
Lee promised an updated status report by Aug. 20, which could include findings on the source of the contamination and a preliminary corrective plan. Final testing following repairs is unlikely to be completed before the full staff returns to the Morris building on Aug. 29.
The Tri-Town Health Department has been advised and is encouraging parents to consult the family's pediatrician if they are interested in testing their child for lead.
"That's the only way to know if there's a consequence of any lead contamination," said Selectman Channing Gibson, since the state DEP does not provide health-risk data for test results that meet or exceed the department's action level.
"If I were a parent in this case, I would not be concerned," Lee said. "But I would be expecting the School Department and the town to quickly remedy this issue and make sure all the water sources in the school are safe for consumption, and that's what's happening."
Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.
More information . . .
• For questions about water testing and school results: Lenox DPW Superintendent Sean VanDeusen at 413-637-5525 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
• For questions about the impact on school operations: Superintendent Timothy Lee at 413-637-5550 or e-mail email@example.com.
In their own words . . .
"We're going to be much more aggressive testing around town than we've been historically. We're going to test both in higher-use periods in the summer and lower-use periods in the winter. Even though we're confident in the system, we're going to do that because that's what you should do. At Morris, this is obviously a big deal and this is where all our energy will be, going forward. I'm confident we're going to find a solution quickly."
— Lenox DPW Superintendent Sean VanDeusen
"We don't have any evidence at all that there's a reason for anybody to panic over this. It's disappointing to find out there's any contamination but I'm really encouraged that the testing showed it's fairly isolated to only four faucets, and the levels are low. I'm glad we found it and I'm glad that we have a plan in place very quickly to investigate and remediate the problem."
— Lenox Selectman Channing Gibson
""What the engineers are investigating is that some place between where the water service comes into the building and these four fixtures, there is exposure to lead. It could be a short section of lead pipe, or even a soldered joint where they used to use old lead-based solder. It is my hope that we may promptly remedy this situation. The town's DPW, the AECOM engineers and building custodians have teamed up to tackle the problem and resolve it this month."
— Schools Superintendent Timothy Lee