NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—At her first meeting in charge of the powerful Board of Education (BOE), Emra Seawood declined to discuss the highly-anticipated results of testing for lead contamination in the drinking water at city schools.
The results showed water fountains, kitchen sinks, and nurse’s sinks were contaminated in six city schools, but that didn’t stop the nine-member BOE from keeping it all secret during their May 3 meeting.
And it happened in the same city where a Water Utility worker once told subordinates to cut corners on lead testing, a decade before he was criminally charged with covering up problems with the drinking water in New Brunswick and two other towns.
“Thank you for your confidence. I won’t let you down,” Seawood said after being named BOE President, eliciting laughter from some members of the board, which is responsible for running the New Brunswick Public Schools (NBPS) system and serving over 10,000 kids.
But, just minutes later, Seawood quickly became evasive when New Brunswick Today asked about the water testing during the “public comments” portion of the meeting.
“Staff and parents will be notified. Expeditiously,” said Seawood, having been asked when the results would be made public.
“Does that mean tomorrow?” asked this reporter.
“Check the website!” snapped Seawood. “The website,” she repeated, after cooling down.
“Is it there on the website now?”
“To-mor-row,” Seawood enunciated, as if she were repeating something she had already said.
BOE attorney George Hendricks, a former City Councilman, argued that because no one was present at their meeting besides this reporter and a leader for the district’s employee union, the district would not discuss the results of the water tests.
“You’re the only public here, so we’re not sharing it,” said Hendricks.
“The last meeting we told you that… as soon as we got the results, we would make it public,” Hendricks explained. “But it takes a process. We just don’t tell you!”
“It takes a little time to digest results, and we did,” said Hendricks. “And they’re being made public tomorrow.”
Board meetings are typically attended by principals and other district officials, and some recent meetings have also drawn large crowds of parents and students.
But at the special “reorganization” meeting, there were literally hundreds of empty seats. For most of the meeting, there was one security guard present for each member of the public.
The following morning, the district announced that 14 of the 181 faucets tested for lead were “found to require remediation.”
After initially relying on a five-paragraph statement from the Superintendent, the district finally released the full 95-page report on the testing on May 4, under pressure from NBToday.
FINDING COMES AS NJ EYES MANDATING SCHOOLS TEST WATER FOR LEAD
Lead poisoning has been one of the biggest environmental and medical problems facing American society for more than a century.
But the issue began to attract worldwide attention after it was revealed that the residents of a city in Michigan were being poisoned following a state takeover that led to irresponsible management of its water supply.
Many of the public schools in Newark, the state’s largest city, were found to have lead in the water soon after, making water quality into a hot-button issue for many New Jersey school districts, especially those with older school facilities.
“The discovery of lead in the water systems of New Brunswick schools is a sad reminder that our drinking water systems are in need of constant repair and maintenance,” said Jim Walsh, the NJ Director of the non-profit consumer group Food & Water Watch.
“It should not take a crisis like lead poisoned children… to spur action, but unfortunately, it is often what it takes to address issues of public health,” said Walsh, who said public officials in Trenton and Washington need to “provide dedicated funding for drinking water.”
This latest water contamination controversy comes:
- More than 10 years after NBPS last tested the drinking water district-wide
- Just under 3 years after the NB Water Utility was caught covering up bad water
- 4 months after a longtime city worker pleaded guilty to public corruption for the cover-up
- 1 day after the Governor announced all schools will be required to conduct annual testing
“At this point, we know the risk of lead contamination is not in our water sources, but in the aging pipes and support systems delivering water through fountains and faucets,” said Governor Chris Christie.
Christie had previously downplayed the risks of lead in drinking water, and warned against “overreacting” to the finding that schools in several urban schools had drinking water that exceeded federal standards for lead.
As for testing done on the blood of children, Christie also announced that New Jersey would officially lower the rate that would trigger intervention.
According to an administration press release, Christie directed Acting Health Commissioner Cathleen Bennett “to move forward with regulatory changes to strengthen New Jersey’s standard for intervening in cases of potential lead exposure.”
“New Jersey will join only about 25 percent of states in requiring earlier intervention when lower levels of lead are detected in a child — from 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood to between 5 and 9 micrograms, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control,” reads the press statement.
However, testing the drinking water, and catching the problem of lead contamination before it reaches the bodies of vulnerable people like kids, is obviously preferable.
“[Schools testing their water] will now become normal course, like many other things that happened in the schools, this will become the normal course of testing and reporting,” said Christie. “And if someone’s not testing or reporting then they’re going to get in trouble.”
Under the new regulations, which are still in the works and would require funding from the state’s legislature, districts would not have to report the results of the water testing to state authorities. They will, however, be required to release results to the public, though it’s not totally clear how the administration will enforce the requirement.
“If parents in one town don’t get the lead information that people in the next town over and the other town over are getting, then we’ll hear about it,” Christie said. “I think as long as we provide the money for the testing, then we’re not gonna have any problem with the schools actually doing it.”
State Education Commissioner David Hespe said that the state’s Board of Education will have to approve the regulations, and both he and the Governor hope to have them finalized in time for the 2016-2017 school year.
Hespe told NBT that the Department of Education will mandate that school water tests be done “in a laboratory.” What remains to be decided, he said, was who will be responsible for gathering the water samples.
New Brunswick residents know that the devil is often in the details, and that it is not hard to falsify the results of water tests, as Edward O’Rourke’s recent public corruption case proved.
O’Rourke, the longtime licensed operator of the city’s water treatment plant, resigned from the job in 2015 and took a plea deal after being caught falsifying the results of water tests to cover up problems with the Water Utility’s product.
Had the school district continued to keep the test results from the public, it wouldn’t have been the first time that a New Brunswick official covered up serious problems with drinking water.
O’Rourke was imprisoned in February, after pleading guilty to public corruption for covering up water problems that should have resulted in water boil warnings going out to residents and businesses in New Brunswick, Milltown, and Franklin.
When NBT brought up O’Rourke, who was in charging of testing the city’s water among other responsibilities, Hendricks interrupted to say this reporter was “out of order.”
MCKINLEY COMMUNITY SCHOOL HAD WORST RESULTS OF ALL
The highest level of lead found in the recent tests was 187 parts per billion (ppb), more than 12 times the legal limit, in a water fountain near room #328D inside the McKinley Community School.
The testing was done independently from the city’s embattled Water Utility, where a falsification scandal has already sent one man to jail.
Instead, the distrct hired the Lew Corporation, which in turn sent the district’s water samples to Shneider Laboratories Global in Richmond, Virginia to test for lead.
McKinley, which serves students in pre-Kindergarden through 8th grade and is located between public housing and the city’s industrial area, had the worst test results of the city’s fourteen facilities tested.
At McKinley, four of the fifteen faucets had to be shut down after it was found they were dispensing an unacceptable level of lead.
In addition to the fountain that tested the highest in the city, two other fountains (41.3 and 27.6) and a “prep” sink (15.5) at the Fourth Ward school were found to exceed the allowable level for lead.
At the city’s Middle School, which serves grades 6-8, two fountains (38.4 and 24.8) and a kitchen “secondary” kitchen sink (65.1) tested above the lead limit.
Two fountains each at Woodrow Wilson Elementary School (29.3 and 27.2) tested above the limit, and the same happened at the Lincoln School Annex (37.2 and 22.8), referred to as the “District Annex,” in the report.
Meanwhile, at the Paul Robeson Community School Annex, a fountain (25.0) and a nurse’s sink (16.2) tested above the limit.
Though older buildings are the most likely to have lead pipes or solder, even one faucet at the district’s newest facility, Redshaw Elementary School, tested positive for lead.
One water sample taken from a “bubbler” at Redshaw, which opened in 2015, showed a lead level of 32.9 parts per billion.
BOE INITIALLY REFUSED TO RELEASE RESULTS, DISCUSS THEM IN PUBLIC
Even though the BOE already had the results of the water testing, they refused to address them during their 24-minute public “reorganization” meeting, which was held in front of just two members of the public and included the adoption of 42 resolutions, none related to the water testing.
NBPS Director of Facility Design & Construction Frank LoDolce admitted that the district had received the test results, but only after NBToday asked about it.
When this reporter asked if there were any issues with the recent testing or cause for concern, Seawood did not answer the question:
NBTODAY: Did any of the schools exceed the allowable contaminants?
SEAWOOD: What I will tell you at this point is this is not the first time we have had to address these issues as a board, and as an administration we’ve acted proactively throughout the years to test the water system. All details will be posted on the website.
As we followed up and pressed Seawood to discuss the results, Hendricks interrupted, as if he were objecting to a question in a court of law.
NBTODAY: I’m curious why the information can’t be shared right now. Surely someone at this dais knows whether–
HENDRICKS: Ya know, when you’re in court, you say ‘asked and answered.’ And that’s what it was. You made a question and it’s been answered. It’ll be posted tomorrow. Period.
NBTODAY: Madame Chair, through you, for the attorney, is this a courtroom? Is this a Court of Law?
HENDRICKS: No it’s not. But you’re being argumentative. We have a decorum here. You asked a question it was answered. Move on, please.
NBTODAY: No sir, it was not. Why is the board not going to share the information tonight? Does anyone here know if any of the schools exceeded the allowable limits of contaminants?
HENDRICKS: It’ll be posted tomorrow, sir.
District officials stood by Seawood’s decision to conceal even the most basic details of the test results, at least for the evening.
The following morning the district released a five-paragraph statement that did not indicate the severity of the contamination or the specific locations where it was found.
The five-paragraph statement from Superintedent Aubrey Johnson said he was “pleased to inform” the “school community” that the “extremely comprehensive testing” results would be available to “us.”
“Of course, we shut these [faucets] down immediately and bottled water is available to students and staff as needed. Repairs will be completed as quickly as possible,” wrote Johnson in his statement.
“Based on our current information, we anticipate remediation to take approximately one month,” Johnson’s statement said. Overall, these infrastructure adjustments will be small in scope, yet they’ll give everyone peace of mind knowing definitively that our water supply is free from lead-focused concerns.”
But parents, students, and concerned citizens were out of luck if they wanted to know exactly which fountains and sinks had been spewing contaminated water, or exactly how high the levels discovered were.
“As far as the results, I think from the board’s position at this point they’ve released as much as they’re willing to release,” said LoDolce, who said this newspaper’s “best bet” to get the full results would be by filing a request under the NJ Open Public Records Act.
“They’re not prepared for me right now to just release the results,” said LoDolce.
At 2:58pm, New Brunswick Today filed an Open Public Records Act request suggesting the district post the full results on their website. Within an hour, they were.
Johnson, who is still in his first year as a Superintendent, did not directly respond to questions about the testing, deferring to Hendricks.
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate, a community organizer, and a former independent candidate for mayor of New Brunswick.