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Detroit Turns Off Public Schools' Drinking Water for Two Years Due to High Levels of Lead
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Photo: Rebecca Cook

Detroit Turns Off Public Schools' Drinking Water for Two Years Due to High Levels of Lead

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DETROIT, MICHIGAN — August 30, 2018

California is facing the most severe consequences of the water crisis. Michigan has now also become one of the most vulnerable states, where a recent water outage is just the latest turn in the state's ongoing water crisis

With the new school year it is a few days, teachers and students will go to school on Monday, but schools throughout the Detroit Public Schools Community District will be without drinking water after tests detected elevated levels of lead and copper. As Annalise Frank of Crain’s Detroit reported, Nikolai Vitti, the superintendent of Michigan’s largest school district ordered the water be shut off “immediately,” and informed school staff of his decision in an email that went out Tuesday afternoon.

It all started in 2016 when the water tested positive for elevated levels of dangerous metals. At that time such checks took place almost constantly. This year, Vitti ordered a new test of all schools. According to Crain’s Detroit, results were tested for 24 schools. Last weeks results showed 16 had levels higher than acceptable, they revealed in an email. All water sources, including drinking fountains and sinks, were tested. Water is still available for hand washing and toilet flushing.

 “Although we have no evidence that there are elevated levels of copper or lead in our other schools (over 50) where we are awaiting test results, out of an abundance of caution and concern for the safety of our students and employees, I am turning off all drinking water in our schools until a deeper and broader analysis can be conducted to determine the long-term solutions for all schools,” Vitti said in an emailed statement Wednesday morning.

The results were not published immediately, but in comparison with the year 2016, elevated levels of lead and copper were detected in 19 schools within the Detroit school district. The well-publicized lead water crisis in Flint, Mich. prompted the testing round. At least one expert told Crain’s Detroit that such water contaminations “could be found nationwide, wherever school authorities spend the time and money to look.”

The Detroit schools' test results are expected to be posted on the school district website and the city's website. Vitti said letters will be sent home to students when the school year starts next week and parents would be informed via a robo-call system immediately.

It turn out that one of the largest school district in Michigan faces water safety concerns as it deals with deteriorating school buildings that require nearly $530 million in capital improvements.

The city of Detroit also plans to work with charter schools on similar water testing, which it can encourage but not mandate, city spokesman John Roach told Crain's.

"We will be supporting (Vitti) in an advisory capacity through the health department, and the (Detroit Water and Sewerage Department) has offered to partner with the district on any follow-up testing that needs to be done," Roach said in an emailed statement. "We are fully supportive of the approach (Vitti) has taken to test all water sources within DPS schools and to provide bottled water until the district can implement a plan to ensure that all water is safe for use."

In Michigan, seemingly wherever such an effort has been made, it has reliably revealed a crisis in water safety. In July, two communities in Kalamazoo County faced a public health crisis after a PFAS test yielded 1,410 parts per trillion in their drinking water, 20 times higher than the lifetime health advisory given by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Officials were “unsure how the man-made chemicals entered the water source” but ordered bottled water to be supplied to the City of Parchment and Cooper Township due to the dangerous health ramifications posed by PFAS, which include an increased “risk of cancer and liver disease, among other hazards.”

Around the same time, an investigation by PBS’s Frontline found that “contaminated water in Flint may have killed almost ten times the number of people as the official count currently indicates, through a rare form of pneumonia.” Flint still has lead-tainted water.

In June, Michigan enacted new regulatory measures to mitigate these water crises, but despite having the strictest regulations in the country, Michigan residents will have to endure a long wait before feeling their impact: One such mandatory requirement, the replacement of nearly 500,000 lead service lines across the state, is not expected to get underway until 2021. The replacement of Flint’s own pipes is expected to take another two years.

In its turn, the city's water department and regional water board issued a statement Wednesday afternoon to assure their customers that the water they are providing is safe.

"The Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) and the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) want to assure Detroit residents and customers of GLWA's regional system that they are not affected by the lead and copper issues that the Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD) is experiencing," they said in a statement. "Aging school infrastructure (i.e. plumbing) is the reason for the precautionary measure of providing bottled water. The treated drinking water provided by GLWA and distributed by DWSD not only meets but surpasses all federal and state Safe Drinking Water Act regulations for quality and safety. The water at GLWA's treatment plants is tested hourly and DWSD has no lead service lines connected to any DPSCD building."

The organizations said they will assist the Detroit school districts as needed.

Michigan’s compounded water woes have become a major talking point for candidates throughout the state’s midterm primary season. In recent months, issues of environmental protection and environmental justice have gained a new primacy among some of the Democratic Party’s newest faces, many of whom are running on a platform they call a “Green New Deal.” Many of the candidates driving the conversation are young women of color running on platforms focused on environmental justice.

Rep. Fred Upton (R) posted a Facebook statement and announced he would be meeting with state and local officials to mount a response. In addition, Upton has called on the Trump administration to crack down on PFAS.

 “Immediate [sic] need is to get to the bottom of this and ensure folks have safe drinking water in the meantime,” Upton wrote.

Michigan has struggled with water issues for several years, most infamously in the case of the city of Flint, where 100,000 residents were exposed to lead in their drinking source. The fallout from that crisis remains ongoing and the city is still without reliable water sources.

Author: USA Really