$3 for 3 months. Save 90%.
$3 for 3 months. Save 90%.

Detroit schools chief says end of drinking fountains might be near

Water coolers are in the hallways and are available for students and staff on the first day of school at Pasteur Elementary School in Detroit.

Detroit — Detroit's school superintendent said drinking fountains could be eliminated in city schools as he looks for alternatives to bring clean water to the district's students.  

On Tuesday, as thousands of children walked into schools for the first day of school in Detroit, Nikolai Vitti said he is working on a solution to create "new stations of water" with a new piping process that would involve frequent water testing so the district does not have to rely on water coolers.

Vitti said the idea would be to have central water stations similar to water coolers but from a new water distribution system that connects to a main source into the building. 

A student from Schulze Elementary School in Detroit stops for a drink of water in the hallway on the first day of school on Tuesday.

This comes after Vitti made the decision last week to turn off drinking water inside all 106 school buildings after 16 schools showed higher-than-acceptable levels for copper and/or lead.

"If you look at the cause of elevated levels of copper or lead, it's either linked to outdated plumbing within schools or the outdated water fixture itself," Vitti said. 

"I don't think we are in a situation right now where we can go back to water fountains at scale because of the building up of contaminants and the inability to replace every single one and the piping in general."

Vitti said he will meet with experts in water quality and engineering in the next few weeks and months. Some reports or recommendations would come from those meetings, Vitti said, and those would be shared with the public.

Central water stations could be set up toward the end of this school year. The cost remains unknown, Vitti said, and the district will explore whether it would fund that directly, ask the state to pay or pursue a philanthropic solution. 

Joanna Underwood, an activist and mom of Detroit students at MacKenzie elementary, speaks to a crowd of dozens outside the Fisher Building, in Detroit on Tuesday. The crowd was gathered to protest the current water situation at Detroit public schools that has led to the students using bottled water.

Michigan has no rules that require school districts to test for lead in their water supply, according to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.  

"It's unfathomable today that we don't have a federal mandate, or a state mandate or local mandate to test all waters and all water sources," Vitti said. "I am concerned as a citizen, as a parent, as an educator that we don't have at scale water testing at every school in the country, nevertheless the city.

"Citizens and parent should demand water testing of all water sources in all schools. ... It's hard for me to believe this is a problem only in DPSCD schools considering many of our (former) buildings are (now) run by charter schools."

There are newer schools, built within the last decade, that also have water quality issues, Vitti said, which could be blamed on inadequate piping or piping not done to code.

Vitti initiated water testing of all 106 school buildings during the spring. The testing evaluated all water sources, from sinks to drinking fountains.

The source of the contamination is unclear.

Concerns that the infrastructure could be to blame for the water quality issues come amid widespread building condition problems. In June, the district released a report that showed it would cost $500 million to repair its buildings.

The district has $29.86 million in needed repairs or replacement costs in plumbing.

The contamination drew protests Tuesday afternoon. More than three dozen people gathered outside of the Fisher Building to demand action to fix the toxic levels of lead and copper in water in school buildings.

Some carried signs that read “Water is Life,” “Declare a Public Health Emergency,” and "Detroit Students Deserve Safe Water.”

Benjamin Royal, at teacher at Maybury Elementary School, said the school buildings were hot Tuesday and students had to line up to get water from coolers in the hallways.

“This is a situation that needs to be fixed,” he said. “We need a state of emergency to get the funding necessary to do it. We have to fight for the money.”

Royal said he blames Lansing “for defunding and destroying our public school system."

What we need to do now is what teachers did in 2015, 2016 with the massive waves of sick outs, including walkouts that restored the right to vote in the city of Detroit, that won us the right to elect our school board. We need more mass actions like that. We need more union actions like that demanding that Lansing replace the resources they stole from us.”

JoAnna Underwood, an activist and mother to students at Mackenzie Elementary-Middle School, said she was angry about the water situation. 

"We all know that the state took over the schools based upon low testing scores and reading scores," she said. "Well, maybe because they've been drinking poisoned water."

Underwood suggested that parents in Detroit not send their children to school and that certain city and school officials, including the superintendent and City Council, be held accountable.

Detroit Water and Sewerage Department Director Gary Brown appeared briefly Tuesday before Detroit’s City Council to discuss the water quality concerns for the city’s public schools.

Brown applauded Vitti for “taking the initiative to have every school tested.” But Brown said the city’s water isn’t the problem.

“I wanted to assure you as well as all Detroiters that the source of the water that’s going into the buildings is outstanding,” Brown told council members. “It’s not the source of the water. It’s once the water gets in the buildings.”

Brown said the department’s wastewater treatment plant tests the water quality hourly and it’s leaving the plant in “pristine” condition. There’s no lead in the transmission system or the distribution system, he said.

The issue, he said, arises with the infrastructure of the school buildings. The water department is offering support from its water experts in evaluating the problems.

“This pertains to buildings, pipes and faucets and not the water being the source of the lead,” he said.

Council members questioned Tuesday how the water is tested and who conducts it. Brown said that the Great Lakes Water Authority tests the water and the state Department of Environmental Quality has oversight.

Brown said the water utility is required to conduct lead testing every three years. The water department conducted a round of lead and copper sampling in 2016, a year before it was required to do so by the EPA, according to a 2017 water quality report. 

Brown said the testing was done early in response to the water crisis in Flint.

The testing is conducted over a three-month period during the warmer weather months, he noted. 

Detroit is required to test a certain amount of houses based on its size, and last year tested twice the amount it typically does, said Brown, who could not immediately provide an estimate on how many properties the testing included.

Brown said the level of lead found in the samplings was 4 parts per billion. The copper was 0.105 parts per million, according to the water quality report. 

Water systems are required to take additional action to control erosion if lead concentrations exceed 15 parts per billion, or copper concentrations exceed 1.3 parts per million in more than 10 percent of taps sampled.

City Councilman Gabe Leland inquired whether the district and water officials have an agreement to handle situations that may arise like the current water concerns.

“The word lead brings up a lot of emotion in this state and this town,” he said. “What is the intergovernmental cooperation that goes into a situation like this? A situation like this could very easily turn into a crisis. 

"Here, students are starting the first day of school with water bottles at DPSCD at a time when we’re doing everything we can for improvement. The term lead is very sensitive.”

Brown said the school district is being transparent in making the lab reports public and that there have been numerous meetings between the city and schools to address the concerns. The city’s health department is leading the coordination, he said.

On Wednesday, Detroit's Health Department leader released a statement commending Vitti for testing all drinking water sources in the schools, and she encouraged charter, private and day care centers in the city to do the same.

"Even if schools previously tested a limited number of water sources, the Detroit Health Department’s current belief is that it is best practice to test every potable water source," said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, the department's director and health officer. 

Khaldun said preventing lead exposure in children is a priority of the department that's secured $1.4 million in new funding in 2018 to support education, outreach and testing for those most at-risk. She also recommended that Detroit children under the age of six be tested annually for lead. 

"We will continue to work with all schools in the city to ensure the health and safety of our children," she said.

Councilwoman Raquel Castaneda Lopez said her sister, a DPSCD teacher, was only informed of the issues via email and said the council hopes to work with the district and water officials to host town hall meetings.

Council President Brenda Jones asked if there were similar water quality concerns with charter schools in the city.

Brown replied: “The health director strongly encouraged all the charter schools to do all the same testing that the DPS schools are doing, and I haven’t heard of any negative results coming back.”

Councilman James Tate said some of the charters are operating in old Detroit public school buildings.

“I would really do our best from the city’s side to press them on checking the water at those particular buildings,” he said. “We should do what we can to ensure those buildings, at a minimum, are tested.”

The Detroit water department's Board of Water Commissioners will meet Wednesday for the first time since the water issues at city schools has come up, Brown said.