Childcare facilities on the Warm Springs reservation were tested last year for lead in the drinking water. One location showed nearly double the action levels set by the Environmental Protection Agency, according to records obtained by OPB.
Lead was not detected in the reservation’s current K-8 school and other childcare buildings, according to tribal officials.
But the building with elevated levels of lead hosts after-school programs on the reservation, and it was a school operated by the Jefferson County School District until 2014. Lead exposure can cause sickness and brain damage, especially in children.
"We've actually had somebody else … do some testing and didn't find it. Now we're going to have to go back and do additional testing on that particular building,” said Alyssa Macy, Warm Springs chief operating officer.
In the meantime, people are still using the building for the Boys and Girls Club, but the tap water is off limits.
“You can't wash your hands in it. You definitely cannot drink it. So, you basically put in the protection efforts in that building so that people don't do that,” Macy said.
That's meant eight months of portable sinks and bottled water at the building. Lead in drinking water is a problem that is well documented at Oregon schools. Even the biggest districts in the state, such as Portland Public Schools, have struggled to manage lead in their water.
Macy said Warm Springs wants to replace the plumbing but doesn't have the funds.
The initial high lead detection was reported to tribal and Jefferson County public health officials in August 2018, according to public records obtained by OPB. The tribe's environmental health specialist, Russell Graham, sent out a copy of lab results showing the concentration found in the water was 29 parts per billion. The EPA's action level is 15 ppb. The email thread shows tribal leaders grappling with how to inform parents and possibly investigate long-term exposure.
“Those of us that started our education there would have started in grade one up to grade four in the ‘old’ unoccupied building, and finished grade five and six in the portion now occupied by the Boys and Girls Club,” wrote Travis Wells, the head of the Tribe’s public utility department.
"I attended that school through sixth grade and my youngest did as well," Wells said in another email. He wrote that the test results would “add fuel to the fire” for people who already don’t trust the reservation’s water system, but “it is important to disseminate all the info we can provide so they can make informed decisions.”