Carmen McCollum, Joyce Russell, Sarah Reese Times Staff Writers
Northwest Indiana school leaders said they intend to take advantage of the Indiana Finance Authority's free program to test for lead in drinking water.
The authority launched the voluntary program in February to ensure drinking water in public schools is safe. Children, particularly those younger than 7, are at greater risk of exposure to lead, which has been linked to lower IQ and can damage the brain and kidneys.
A list provided April 28 by the Indiana Finance Authority showed 23 school districts and charter schools in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties have signed up for the program, along with the Lake County Juvenile Detention Center.
Communities across Northwest Indiana could be at risk, especially at school buildings constructed before using lead pipe and lead solder in plumbing equipment was prohibited in 1986. Faucets, valves and other components made of brass also can corrode and leach lead into drinking water.
"The critical issue is that even though your public water supplier may deliver water that meets all federal and state public health standards for lead, you may end up with too much lead in your drinking water because of the plumbing in your facility," a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency document said.
Schools may have elevated lead levels in water because of intermittent use patterns that allow water to remain in contact with lead in lines for extended periods of time, EPA said.
Schools sign up for testing
East Chicago, which recently closed Carrie Gosch Elementary School because of an ongoing cleanup of lead and arsenic in the soil in the Calumet neighborhood, plans to participate in the Indiana Finance Authority's program but also recently conducted independent water testing.
EPA also recently found elevated lead levels in drinking water at 18 homes in the neighborhood during a pilot study, which employed a more robust testing method than required under the federal Lead and Copper Rule.
Independent testing at School City of East Chicago buildings showed the water was clear, schools Superintendent Paige McNulty said.
"We had a couple of water fountains that needed to be replaced at the cleat house near the football field," she said.
"It's an old sports room that isn't being used right now. We didn't find lead, but the fountain itself was old and we needed to replace it, which happens in so many school buildings over time."
Portage Township Schools Superintendent Amanda Alaniz said the district's goal "is to make sure the quality of water consumed in our schools is safe and clean" and the well-being of students and staff is a priority.
The district's maintenance team completed water pipe replacement projects in 2004 and 2007, she said. The galvanized water piping was replaced with new copper piping.
"There is no fee for participating in this," Alaniz said. "PTS closely monitors our water quality reports provided by Indiana American Water; however, we also feel that participating in this collaboration to ensure clean, safe and quality drinking water is just one more example of our diligent commitment to our students, staff and community."
Lake Ridge schools Superintendent Sharon Johnson-Shirley said the Head Start program, housed in the administration building, the oldest building in the district, was tested in 2016, and the results came back clean.
Officials don't expect to see any elevated lead levels as part of the Indiana Finance Authority testing, Johnson-Shirley said.
Lake Station schools Superintendent Thomas Cripliver said his district doesn't have any concerns regarding lead contamination but decided to participate in the program.
"We thought in the interests of public safety, we'd have this done," he said.
"We have no issues with lead in the water or soil in Lake Station. We've asked them to test the water fountains, sinks in restrooms, kitchen facility, nurses offices and all the water faucets and spigots in the buildings. We're testing everything that we can get tested."
Michigan City Area Schools spokeswoman Betsy Kohn said she talked recently to representatives from the Indiana Finance Authority, and testing will take place in the summer.
"We're pretty optimistic the sampling won't indicate lead. We don't have any piping or soldering which could be an issue," Kohn said. "We've also been proactive. We've performed preliminary testing at our buildings. We did replace faucets at three hand sinks at three locations. That was minimal compared to the volume."
The city of Michigan City created a committee to study the lead issue and has said the most likely exposure pathway would be lead-based paint, Kohn said.
"We're going to send home flyers to our parents of young children, reminding them to test their young children. They can do that at the health department at no cost. We're also going to email our other parents regarding this issue," Kohn said.
Michigan City Area Schools operates 17 buildings, 13 of which are school buildings.
Discovery Charter Principal Ernesto Martinez said it's a free opportunity, so the school enrolled.
"We don't expect we have any problems," he said.
Schools not on the list — yet
Valparaiso Community Schools Superintendent E. Ric Frataccia said his district became concerned after hearing about lead in East Chicago and planned for testing before the Indiana Finance Authority launched its program. The authority said its program is not related to lead concerns in East Chicago.
Initially, Valparaiso schools worked with the city but later hired Amereco Engineering of Valparaiso to conduct tests for lead in the water.
Amereco conducted the tests over spring break and the district is awaiting the results, he said. The tests cost the district $7,500.
Frataccia said if any issues are discovered, the district would immediately move to correct them.
School leaders in Gary and Hammond said they were not aware of the Indiana Finance Authority program. The authority sent a letter to public school superintendents across the state in February, records show.
Gary schools Superintendent Cheryl Pruitt, who returned to the district in late April after medical leave, said she will contact the Indiana Finance Authority.
"We're working to make sure the water quality is up to standards at all of our schools, and we do test the water occasionally. It's always a concern to make sure that everything children touch is environmentally safe."
The Gary school district has 13 open buildings and an enrollment of 5,823 students.
Hammond schools' Chief Financial Officer Theo Boone said all the buildings were tested 10 years ago.
"We just completed testing the water in the buildings which have Head Start programs," he said, while searching online to find out more about the Indiana Finance Authority program.
The School City of Hammond is the largest school district in Northwest Indiana, with 13,150 students and 25 buildings, 24 of which are school buildings.
"We're deciding now which buildings will be tested next, but we're also going to look into this program," Boone said.