Local schools fight water contamination

ESCANABA — From Lower Michigan to the Upper Peninsula, drinking water test results are showing higher levels of lead and copper at some public schools. Superintendents at schools in Delta and Schoolcraft counties are being proactive to reduce contaminants by doing things to keep bacteria away from drinking fountains, installing filtration systems, and checking water systems for contaminants before problems arise.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) sent a memo to schools in May regarding water testing, mainly looking for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). The memo requested schools test drinking water whether they use a well or community water supplies.

PFAS are a large group of manmade chemicals that are resistant to heat, water and oil. They have been found at low levels in the environment and in blood samples of the general population. Affects of PFAS are still being studied.

Jay Kulbertis, superintendent of both Gladstone and Rapid River school districts, oversees two districts with different types of water supply systems.

In the Rapid River school district, well water is used, which requires more frequent testing. Items tested for are bacterial agents, heavy metals and organics.

“The district’s maintenance department will continue to seek ways to prevent any drinking water problems and to continue to follow MDEQ guidelines,” said Kulbertis.

Gladstone area schools are supplied with city water. The Gladstone water department provides the school with yearly reports, and according to school maintenance, back-flow devices are inspected yearly.

“Some measures the district has taken was with the installation of water drinking fountain bottle fills,” said Harold Flagstadt, of Gladstone Area Schools’ maintenance department. “Each station has a carbon filter the water flows through and daily cleaning and disinfecting of all fountains helps reduce bacteria.”

Manistique schools are provided water from the city of Manistique. Superintendent Maryann Boddy has reviewed the city’s water report for the past 10 years.

“All of the city water has tested well within allowable ranges,” said Boddy.

Manistique schools are undergoing plumbing system visual observations.

“We will be testing the drinking water sources in our buildings in the next few weeks, with results expected in early to mid-October,” Boddy noted.

Boddy will work with the Manistique city water superintendent through the water testing process.

Like the Manistique and Gladstone school districts, water at Holy Name Catholic School in Escanaba comes from a city supply. Joseph Carlson, principal of Holy Name, had the school’s drinking fountains replaced with new fountains and new water lines were installed over the summer.

“We replaced all the water lines, due to the fact that our lines were as old as the building (1953) and some of the sinks’ fountains did not have a lot of water pressure… This project has been on-going for about four years,” said Carlson.

While districts across the region are trying to stop water contamination before it happens, sometimes contamination still occurs. In the spring of 2012, Bark River-Harris Schools’ drinking water, which comes from a well system, was found to have E. coli in it during a routine testing. In response to the report, the water system was completely shut down until a new well was drilled and some plumbing added.

The school district works closely with the Public Health Delta and Menominee Counties, routinely checking the water supply by scheduling sample testing and posting results.

“We’ve trained our buildings/grounds director and he is now a certified water tester,” said Jason Lockwood, superintendent of Bark River-Harris Schools.

Protecting children from the harms of contaminants in water is a constant issue. The Michigan State Board of Education has recognized children may be more effected by chemical, physical and biological hazards than adults.

The Escanaba Area School Schools were contacted for this story, but did not respond before publication.