“At the end of the tour the former principal of the school stopped at the sink and told me ‘Don’t drink the water here.’ I laughed, believing her statement to be a joke. But the principal repeated herself in a more serous tone, and told me the water really isn’t good at our school and that she would not drink it herself.”
– Bellehaven Elementary teacher Molly Keyes
“I would consider this a moderate risk. I considerate it moderately bad.”
Virginia Tech professor Marc Edwards on the lead in APS’ water
While students, teachers and staff at 23 Albuquerque Public Schools have been drinking – or knowingly avoiding – the “moderately bad” water coming out of pipes that date from the 1930s to the 1990s, administrators of the largest school district in the state were busy spending your tax dollars on:
◊ A $22 million teacher training facility (built).
◊ A $5 million employee health clinic (on hold).
◊ An $850,000 office remodel for administrators and their staff (paid).
◊ And millions of dollars to make troubled administrators go away as well as to settle lawsuits prompted by poor administration decisions.
And that’s just in recent memory.
Meanwhile, Journal reporter Shelby Perea revealed in a series of stories published in the Journal that educators at at least one of these schools have been telling new hires not to drink from the faucets. They have brought in filtered water for the class fish. And they have watched students ingest mouthful after mouthful after mouthful of a liquid that has recently been deemed “moderately bad” by the guy who helped uncover the dangerous lead levels in Flint, Michigan, that made national news.
And to taxpayers and especially parents, those adult-centric priorities listed above just don’t hold water.
Yes, APS officials deserve credit for signing up for the Lead Assistance Project through the New Mexico Environment Department and Department of Health. Capitan Municipal Schools and Los Alamos Public Schools are the only other of N.M.’s 89 districts to take advantage of the program, which is funded through a federal grant.
And APS did the right thing by not hiding behind the New Mexico Department of Health determination the water presents minimal health risks for kids. Instead the district halted the use of fixtures that tested “actionable” per a threshold established by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (0.015 milligrams per liter) until they have been replaced and tested at acceptable lead levels.
It’s a relief to many parents that bottled water has been carted in for summer sessions at some of the 23 schools in question.
The district’s leaden water shouldn’t be used as a means of fomenting public fear for the health of students past and present – the state Health Department has to be taken at its word barring information to the contrary. But the EPA has said lead can be harmful to human health “even at low exposure levels” and can result in a lower IQ, slowed growth and behavioral and learning problems.
It’s troubling that students were drinking such water while the district put other capital priorities – especially those benefitting adults – ahead of the basic expectation of safe, clean water. Because while state-of-the-art training facilities were being built, administrator offices were being remodeled and some employees were being paid to go away, lead was leeching out of school pipes and principals were doing their best B-movie travel agent impressions, telling new employees “don’t drink the water.”
The district’s oldest schools did not register on the lead test, and that’s likely because their pipes have been in use so long all the lead has leeched out, according to UNM research professor Bruce Thomson, who has been studying water issues for four decades.
That leaves 23, built between 1950 and 1998, with faucets with high lead levels – the highest at Alameda Elementary (built in 1954), Mary Ann Binford Elementary (built in 1984) and Bellehaven Elementary (built in 1966), according to the testing data. That we know of. Because, remember, not all the faucets at even those schools have been tested.
Albuquerque Public Schools administrators have said they await funding to test other sinks.
Until then, having students unwittingly play the water faucet lead lottery shouldn’t hold water with taxpayers or parents, either. Those tests and any repairs deemed necessary need to be completed before APS cuts another check for an adult-centric project.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.