More than half of Detroit's schools have tainted water from lead, copper

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News
Signs are held during a demonstration and protest demanding safe and clean drinking water for students at Detroit Public Schools, held at the Fisher Building, home of the DPSCD administration office, in Detroit, September 4, 2018.

Detroit — More than half of the 106 schools inside Michigan's largest school district have high levels of copper and/or lead.

The district on Wednesday received test results that showed 33 additional schools in the Detroit Public Schools Community District have the elevated levels, according to Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti.

Previously, 24 schools tested above acceptable levels, bringing the total number of schools with tainted water to 57 in a district besieged by $500 million in building repair needs.

The total number of schools with high levels could increase as school officials await more test results on another 17 schools.

"As you know, drinking water in these schools was discontinued as we await water test results for all schools. Although the kitchen water has only been turned off in schools where levels were determined high, we have been using bottled water to clean food in all schools," Vitti said.

"As a reminder, we have not used water to cook food in our kitchens for some time and instead have delivered pre-cooked meals to students. We plan to install filters for kitchen sinks to remedy challenges in kitchens."

Just days before the first day of school on Sept. 4, Vitti turned off drinking water inside all 106 school buildings after an initial 16 schools showed high levels of copper and/or lead. Another eight tested for elevated levels in the spring after they were identified with concerns in 2016.

DPSCD board member Deborah Hunter-Harvill confirmed the water test results were released Wednesday after The News obtained a copy of Vitti's communication to staff.

“We completed our community meeting, and we’ve taken down recommendations and suggestions to make certain our kids are safe,” she said.

Last week, Vitti said a $2 million water station system would address water quality issues across the district.

At a board of education meeting on Sept. 11, Vitti said the most practical, long-term and safest solution for water quality problems inside the schools is water hydration stations in every building. The systems are used in districts Flint, Royal Oak and Birmingham and in Baltimore, Vitti said.

In the email he sent on Wednesday, Vitti said: "Moving forward, we will continue to use water coolers districtwide and are actively working through the bid processes to make a recommendation to the board for the use of hydration stations. This will occur within the next couple of weeks. The hydration stations would be installed in all schools by next school year and replace the need for water coolers."

The cost to have stations in every school — one for every 100 students — is $2 million and would include stations in faculty rooms and gymnasiums, Vitti said.

Vitti said he plans to get information to the board to consider next month. The system could be installed in the next school year, he said.

The district is spending $200,000 on bottled water and water coolers for the next several months, Vitti said.

He said the cause of the water contamination likely is the ages of the school buildings and older plumbing systems.

Lower usage of water due to smaller enrollment sizes leads to copper and lead buildup, Vitti said. The schools were built for use by thousands of students, but the district's ranks have shrunk.

"The reality is our schools are vastly different: some are new, some are old. Some have outdated systems, some have outdated sinks and plumbing," Vitti said.

He said he has consulted with the governor's office, the departments of environmental health, and licensing and regulations, as well as Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, whose work exposed the Flint lead water crisis, and water expert Elin Betanzo.

"They have provided lessons on Flint. They gave the recommendation for me to think about piping in general and a long-term solution," Vitti said.

Board President Iris Taylor said the school board will meet next month to "review and likely approve the hydration station solution.”

“The bidding procedures will be followed to ensure we obtain the best quality, price and service for the stations over the next two weeks," Taylor said in a statement.

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

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.

Board member LaMar Lemmons said he supports spending $2 million to fix the water problems and continues to blame the state for neglecting school buildings during a decade of state control, which ended in 2017.

"Under the $2 billion (spent) for new school construction and renovation, they did a terrible job. There is no excuse for these schools to not have been maintained," Lemmons said.

Detroit Water and Sewerage Department Director Gary Brown has 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.

According to Brown, 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. 

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.

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

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

The district has said it needs $29.86 million to repair or replace plumbing, according to the facilities report, which was written before the water was shut off in September.

Latest round of schools with high lead or copper levels:

  1. Ann Arbor Trail Magnet School
  2. Bagley Elementary School
  3. Bethune Elementary-Middle School
  4. Brewer
  5. Carleton Elementary School
  6. Chrysler Elementary School
  7. Cody High School
  8. Davis Aerospace HS at Golightly
  9. Denby
  10. Detroit International Academy for Young Women
  11. Douglass Academy for Young Men
  12. Emerson Elementary/Middle School
  13. Fleming
  14. Gardner Elementary
  15. Golightly Educational Center
  16. Greenfield Union Elementary/Middle School
  17. Henderson, Erma Academy
  18. Law
  19. Mann Elementary School
  20. Marquette Elementary/Middle School
  21. Mason Elementary/Middle School
  22. Mumford High School
  23. Nichols Academy
  24. Nolan
  25. Osborn
  26. Pasteur Elementary School
  27. Pulaski
  28. Randolph Career Academy - Construction Trades
  29. Southeastern High School
  30. Twain, Mark Academy
  31. West Side Academy
  32. Western International High School
  33. Wright, Charles Lower Academy

Previously tested schools with elevated levels

  1. Academy of the Americas Elementary-Middle School
  2. Adult Education - East
  3. Bates Academy
  4. Bennett Elementary-Middle School
  5. Cass Technical High School
  6. Roberto Clemente Elementary
  7. Clippert Elementary Middle School
  8. Coleman Young Elementary School
  9. Davis Aerospace @ Golightly
  10. Dixon Academy
  11. Foreign Language Immersion
  12. Hutchinson @ Howe
  13. Keidan
  14. Noble Elementary-Middle School
  15. Marcus Garvey
  16. Renaissance High School
  17. Burton International
  18. Bow Elementary-Middle School
  19. Carstens Elementary-Middle School
  20. Carver STEM
  21. Clark Elementary-Middle School
  22. Detroit Lions Academy
  23. Sampson-Webber Academy
  24. Spain Elementary-Middle School