Detroit schools fined for drinking water violation

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

A state workplace safety and health agency has fined Detroit’s public school district for violating sanitation laws at one of its schools as recently as May 31 and ordered that potable water be provided by July 24.

According to a June 20 ruling by the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Detroit Public Schools Community District did not provide employees at John R. King Academy with potable water for hand washing, food washing, washing, eating and cooking utensils during an inspection period from March 30 to May 31, when school was in session.

The state agency fined the Detroit district $4,000 and ordered it to provide clean water at the school in the next three weeks.

In 2016, King was among 15 district school buildings that tested positive for high lead levels. In one building, a drinking fountain recorded 100 times the allowable limit. The district collected its own samples, and the results were reviewed by the Detroit Health Department.

In February, the district said drinking water in all 94 of its public schools fell within federal guidelines for lead and copper following environmental treatments at 10 buildings that started last spring.

On Monday, district officials said testing in March showed the water was safe to drink across the district. A lab report testing copper and lead dated March 22 listed 10 samples from King as “acceptable.”

Jason Moon, a spokesperson for the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs, said Monday the MiOSHA inspection was in response to an employee health complaint.

“During MIOSHA’s inspection, it reviewed water test results in 2016 (tests conducted by the employer through commercial laboratories) that showed high levels of copper in water in some school fixtures. Employees were provided potable water for drinking, but not for washing, cooking and other purposes. No high levels of lead were determined in the 2016 testing,” Moon said in an email.

On Monday a group of teachers held a news conference to note the MiOSHA ruling, challenge the district’s safe water assessment and call for new pipes in all schools where students cannot drink water from the system.

Nicole Conaway, a district teacher, said the water is not safe to drink at King. During the school year, students had been drinking water from 4-ounce sealed cups.

“We are here to fight for their rights, their quality of life, ... their right to clean, safe drinking water in their schools,” Conaway said. “We demand they change the pipes now. We want this water out of our schools.”

On Monday, Western International High School was closed due to low water pressure, she said.

“It is not acceptable in a modern American city for children to not have access to water,” Conaway said.

King student Romeo Moore said he spent the year drinking warm water from the 4-ounce cups.

“Kids need full glasses of water. Four ounces isn’t enough,” the 13-year-old said.

Just minutes after the press conference on Monday, the school district and the Detroit Health Department issued a joint statement that said water tests performed in the district in March showed no lead or copper over the allowable limits.

The statement says the district began testing for copper and lead in 2016 and found two samples exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency limit for copper. With the help of the city’s health department, the district used an intervention method called “DiHydro” at King.

The system coats pipes with a silicate that prevents the leaching of lead, copper and bacteria when the system is in use, the statement says.

“With this water treatment system in place, DPSCD retested the school’s water in March 2017. Such tests revealed no exceedances for lead or copper,” the statement says. “In cooperation with the Detroit Health Department, the District will continue to test and follow established protocols to ensure the water is safe for public consumption.”

Katarina Brown, a former King Academy teacher, said she filed the complaint with MiOSHA after she learned in September she had elevated copper levels from drinking the water at King.

Brown said it’s been three years without safe drinking water at King and has accused the district of telling parents the water is safe when it is not. She says the district ran out of water for King students at one point during the year and she has been threatened by district staff for seeking help with the water issue.

“Rather than fix the problem, DPSCD administrators have tried to cover it up and risk the lives and the health of the students and staff at the school. The fines from MiOSHA will stop them from harming our students,” Brown said.

Steve Conn, a teacher at Western and a former Detroit Federation of Teachers president, said he is again calling on teachers and students in DPSCD to take action to force Superintendent Nikolai Vitti to fix, clean and repair all district buildings before the start of the school year.

District officials declined further comment.