After Lead and Copper Discovered, Detroit Cuts Drinking Water in Public Schools
By Lori Higgins
The Detroit school district is shutting off drinking water to all of its schools after test results found elevated levels of lead or copper in 16 out of 24 schools that were recently tested.
"Although we have no evidence that there are elevated levels of copper or lead in our other schools 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," Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the Detroit Public Schools Community District, said in a statement Wednesday.
The move came even as officials from the city and the Great Lakes Water Authority sought to assure residents that water provided by the authority is safe to drink -- pointing to the district's infrastructure as the problem.
Vitti, who will be creating a task force to determine the cause of the elevated levels and solutions, said he had initiated water testing of all 106 school buildings in the spring to ensure the safety of students and employees. Water at 18 schools had been previously shut off.
"This was not required by federal, state or city law or mandate," Vitti said. "This testing, unlike previous testing, evaluated all water sources from sinks to drinking fountains."
The district isn't planning to test students.
"Dr. Vitti said ... he has no evidence at all that children have been impacted from a health standpoint," Chrystal Wilson, spokeswoman for the district, said later Wednesday, when asked by the Free Press.
The Free Press was shadowing Vitti on a day in May when the issue of water quality in the schools came up during a cabinet meeting. Earlier that day, Vitti had learned that test results at several schools had come back showing elevated lead levels.
"I'm not playing around with this. ... it's a safety issue," Vitti said during that meeting.
The district's building problems have been a constant source of frustration for Vitti. Earlier this summer, Vitti released details from a facilities review that found the district would need to spend $500 million now to fix the poor conditions in its schools. That price tag will rise to $1.4 billion in five years if the district did nothing.
In May, Vitti said the district didn't make the right investments in facilities while it was under the control of state-appointed emergency managers from 2009 to 2016. Vitti became superintendent in May 2017.
"It's sending the message to students, parents and employees that we really don't care about public education in Detroit, that we allow for second-class citizenry in Detroit," Vitti said then. "And that hurts my heart and it angers me and it frustrates me that I can't fix it right now."
At the 16 schools that had elevated copper and/or lead levels, the district took immediate action.
"I immediately turned off the drinking water at those schools and provided water bottles until water coolers arrive," Vitti said.
The 16 schools bring to 34 the number of schools where the district has already shut off drinking water.
Wilson said the drinking water will be shut off at all schools likely by the end this week, and certainly before the beginning of the school year Tuesday.
District officials weren't readily able to answer questions about how the testing was conducted.
Vitti said he had notified Mayor Mike Duggan of his decision to shut off the drinking water.
"The mayor's office plans to partner with us to determine challenges with water quality in our schools and solutions to them."
John Roach, a spokesman for Duggan, said the mayor is "fully supportive" of the approach Vitti has taken.
"We will be supporting Dr. Vitti in an advisory capacity through the health department and the DWSD (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 a statement. "We also will be reaching out to charter (school) operators in the coming days to work with them on a possible similar testing strategy to the voluntary one Dr. Vitti has implemented."
The water and sewerage department and the Great Lakes Water Authority also issued a statement that sought to assure "residents and customers of GLWA's regional system that they are not affected by the lead and copper issues" the district is experiencing.
"Aging school infrastructure (i.e. plumbing) is the reason for the precautionary measure of providing bottled water," the joint statement said.
The statement said water treated by the authority meets and surpasses all federal and state regulations.
"The water at GLWA's treatment plans is tested hourly and DWSD has no lead service lines connected to any DPSCD building," the statement said.
Wilson, asked whether the issue in the district is related to plumbing or water quality, said it's an issue that will be studied.
"A task force will be formed consisting of engineering and water quality experts" who will help the district "understand the cause and identify solutions," Wilson said.
These are the 34 schools where drinking water has been shut off:
* Ben Carson
* Detroit Collegiate Preparatory
* Edison Elementary School
* John R. King Academy
* Moses Field
* Thirkell Elementary School
* Thurgood Marshall
* Wayne Elementary School
* Burton International
* Bow Elementary-Middle School
* Carstens Elementary-Middle School
* Carver STEM
* Clark Elementary-Middle School
* Detroit Lions Academy
* Sampson-Webber Academy
* Spain Elementary-Middle School
* Academy of the Americas Elementary-Middle School
* Adult Education- East
* Bates Academy
* Bennett Elementary-Middle School
* Cass Technical High School
* Roberto Clemente Elementary
* Clippert Elementary Middle School
* Coleman Young Elementary School
* Davis Aerospace @ Golightly
* Dixon Academy
* Foreign Language Immersion
* Hutchinson @ Howe
* Noble Elementary-Middle School
* Marcus Garvey
* Renaissance High School
Staff writer Katrease Stafford contributed to this report.
(c)2018 the Detroit Free Press