Morris Elementary to provide bottled water until elevated lead levels remedied

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LENOX — When the school bell rings at Morris Elementary on Aug. 31, students and staff will quench their thirst not from the school's water fountains but from temporary bottled "bubblers" set up in the halls while repairs are completed on the water system.

Last month, water quality testing revealed slightly elevated lead levels at four faucets in the cafeteria kitchen area rarely used as direct sources for drinking.

As a precaution, schools Superintendent Timothy Lee notified the Morris community via letter that the drinking water supply would be shut down so the source of the lead contamination could be traced and necessary repairs could be completed.

Lenox Water Department Foreman Robert Horn and technicians from the global engineering firm AECOM based in Latham, N.Y., appear to have tracked down the source of the problem to plumbing components — an old hot water shortage tank and a faulty "check" valve — which will be replaced, Lee said.

He voiced optimism that the project will be completed in three weeks, followed by flushing of the system and a new round of testing.

"I anticipate we'll then have a clean report," he said.

The expanded testing earlier this summer had been done a year ahead of the state-required schedule, Lee said, because of events elsewhere in the nation, such as the water crisis in Flint, Mich., and water system contamination in Hoosick Falls, N.Y.

Although lead and copper can be toxic in elevated doses, he said, the district had no evidence of "a cumulative health risk to students, staff and other building users, since previous tests in 2011 were normal.

The recent findings showed that the town water supply, which is tested annually with stellar results, was lead-free entering the school.

After the problem was identified, bottled water was supplied to about 30 students in Grades 1 through 5 attending the two-week "Jump Start" Title 1 academic warmup program earlier this month, and to any others using the building.

Following release of the test results, Lee had stressed that "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. 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."

Widespread sampling at Morris yielded a score of 17 parts per billion of lead in a faucet at the Title 1 office, 21 in a kitchen sink and pot-filler and 23 in the paraprofessional office. Out of 36 samples, 32 were normal.

The Department of Environmental Protection imposes a stringent "action level" when lead is detected at 15 parts per billion or more.

No lead contamination was found at water fountains elsewhere in the school during two rounds of testing, one in June and a followup in early July to confirm the initial results, according to DPW Superintendent Sean VanDeusen.

The faucets producing the low levels of lead are close together in the "original footprint" of the Morris school near the boiler room and the cafeteria before the building was expanded and renovated in 1994.

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.

VanDeusen, who acknowledged earlier this month that he had been "taken aback" by the findings at the elementary school, stressed that the source of the town water supply at the Root Reservoirs is "as pure as it can be."

"We're going to be much more aggressive testing around town than we've been historically," he said. "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."

Contact Clarence Fanto at 413-637-2551.


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