The Kennebec Water District is collecting three more sets of water samples at Benton Elementary School to determine the source of a newly discovered high lead level.

After the water district tested for lead in the water at Benton Elementary and found dangerously high levels at all three testing sites, the school on Wednesday shut off its water fountains, began replacing all its water fixtures and instructed students to drink only bottled water that the school is providing.

The Environmental Protection Agency says action must be taken when more than 10 percent of samples show a water supply’s lead level is above 15 parts per billion for residential areas and 20 ppb for schools.

Now the Kennebec Water District is testing more sites surrounding the school to determine whether the contamination is internal or external. Test results are expected back on Monday, general manager Jeff LaCasse said.

In results from samples taken Oct. 14, the water district found that all three sites tested at Benton Elementary had lead levels well above the level at which action is required.

The results showed 57 parts per billion at a faucet in a first-floor classroom, 78 ppb at a faucet in a second-floor classroom and 670 ppb at a faucet near the cafeteria.

LaCasse said he was surprised at the high levels found in the school, the highest of which was more than 30 times the allowable level at one faucet.

Benton Elementary sent home letters to parents both Wednesday and Thursday explaining that test results indicated “high levels of lead,” that students are not allowed to drink water from faucets or fountains and that the kitchen is using bottled water for cooking. Thursday’s letter also said that the school is working with the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention to determine the next steps it should take.

The water district last tested the Benton area in August 2015 and found lead levels to be below the action level, he said.

There is one high-risk residence on Neck Road designated as “Tier 1,” meaning it is at high risk because of lead solder in its pipes or its served by a lead service line. It tested well below the action level at just 0.93 ppb, LaCasse said.

He said it’s less likely that the lead is coming from the public system, though they aren’t certain yet. The most likely sources of lead leaching into systems are usually older water fixtures and pipes that used lead soldering, which was banned in the 1990s.

Superintendent Dean Baker, of School Administrative District 49, which includes Benton Elementary, said the school is collecting three sets of samples from all the previous sites. One sample will be taken once the water is running, to test if the contamination is near the faucet; one will be taken after running the water for a few minutes to capture the water in the pipes; and one will be taken when the water has started to run cold, which will mean it’s coming from the main pipe.

This will determine whether the problem is within the Kennebec Water District or the school’s pipes, he said.

ANNUAL TESTING

Baker said testing for water in lead in schools depends on who is supplying the water, and that he didn’t believe the school had been tested recently. There is a “variation in requirements,” he said.

Now, Baker said, the district is going to test all schools annually. “My concern now is what we do from here,” he said.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Safe Drinking Water Information System database, the district had a problem with the lead level in water in 2009 at Albion Elementary School, which has its own water supply, according to LaCasse.

Schools with their own water supplies, such as wells, are required to test for lead under regulatory guidelines, he said.

In June 2009, Albion Elementary notified the public that its water contained 337 parts per billion of lead. It achieved EPA compliance again in late January 2010.

Baker did not respond immediately to a request Thursday for comment and more information about the source of the contamination.

Benton Elementary was built in 1957, before lead solder was banned, and then updated and enlarged in the 1990s. The closest the water district ever got to the school was when it connected its main pipeline to the school’s pipeline, which was years ago, LaCasse said.

While the water district is not required to test school locations in addition to its public system, its trustees and staff decided to offer testing to local elementary schools as a “goodwill gesture,” LaCasse said.

In a letter sent to area superintendents and principals in May providing information about the pilot program, LaCasse cites the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, as having put “a spotlight on the issue of lead in water and the potential impacts of lead exposure on humans, especially children.”

The letter goes on to explain that while the water district is in compliance with its system, it realizes “there is concern from customers, especially those with young children.” Its testing showed “no discernible lead” leaching out of its piping system into that of the schools, but it decided to pilot a sampling program to provide “peace of mind.”

The EPA placed the water district on a reduced monitoring plan in the mid-1990s because of the effectiveness of its corrosion control treatment, which resulted in consistently low lead levels, LaCasse said. The reduced monitoring plan requires triennial monitoring, not annual.

The criteria to be placed on the reduced monitoring plan are that the public water service serves not more than 50,000 people and is doesn’t exceed the action level for three consecutive years, or that the service meets the overall water quality parameters and doesn’t exceed the action level for three consecutive years, or that the service has lead and copper levels below a certain threshold for two six-month monitoring periods

COMPARED TO FLINT

The city of Flint did a number of things wrong and intentionally, LaCasse noted.

In contrast to the Kennebec Water District, the EPA said in April 2014, the city of Flint stopped treating the water for lead and copper with orthophosphate, which was used by Detroit, from which Flint previously bought its water.

“In effect, the City of Flint stopped providing treatment used to mitigate lead and copper levels in the water,” the memo says. The EPA also cites the practice of “pre-flushing” as an issue that hurts the validity of sampling water for lead.

In 2015, the EPA notified the state of Michigan about dangerously high lead levels in one resident’s home.

In February that year, testing revealed her water had 104 parts per billion of lead, and then 397 ppb in March.

After a public battle between activists and city officials, the EPA issued a memo that says scientists at Virginia Tech found lead levels as high as 13,200 ppb at the same residence. The EPA classifies water with lead levels of 5,000 ppb as hazardous waste.

The resident followed a set of sampling instructions from the city that told residents to “pre-flush” their taps prior to collecting compliance samples for lead testing. The EPA said the levels she found were “especially alarming” given they were taken using a procedure that minimizes the appearance of lead.

This May, the Guardian investigated and found that 33 cities across the United States used water testing “cheats,” some similar to those used in Flint. The Guardian found seven cities in New England that, at the very least, instructed residents to “pre-flush” water pipes, including Portland, Lewiston and Bangor in Maine.

The Kennebec Water District has been following EPA protocol, LaCasse said. The EPA sent a memo in February clarifying that residents shouldn’t be instructed to flush the tap before taking samples, among other things.

The water district’s instructions sent to residents for sampling in August, prior to the EPA memo, do not ask residents to run or flush the tap.

Madeline St. Amour — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @madelinestamour


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