The Environmental Protection Agency warned Oregon health officials back in April that some schools and daycares in the Portland area should be tested because of the risk of high lead levels in drinking water there.
On April 14, a manager in the EPA’s drinking water unit in Seattle sent a letter to regulators at the Oregon Health Authority.
The manager, Marie Jennings, was concerned that the Portland Water Bureau isn’t doing enough to minimize the amount of lead at taps in Portland. She wrote that the EPA's regional administrator, Dennis McLerran, had "heightened concerns about drinking water quality, including the [Portland Water Bureau's] implementation under the Lead and Copper Rule."
Water Bureaus can help reduce lead exposure by changing the pH of water so it’s less corrosive.
The EPA and the Water Bureau have a long-running dispute over the city's unconventional approach to complying with the federal lead and copper rule, which includes a successful lead education program, but less aggressive water treatment than the federal agency recommends.
In her letter, Jennings told the Oregon Health Authority to request testing for high priority schools and daycares that get water from the Portland Water Bureau. She wrote:
In the interest of public health protection, the Agency recommends that OHA request Portland to begin testing of high priority schools and daycares served by PBW, to ensure they are below the lead action level.”
Several of state’s largest school districts get their water from the Portland Water Bureau, including Portland Public Schools, Gresham Barlow, and Tigard Tualatin.
Staff at the Oregon Health Authority met with the EPA staff on April 18 to discuss their concerns. OHA officials said they have met with the Water Bureau twice to discuss the EPA's concerns, and that Water Bureau officials have indicated they are working on complying and were already working on lead issues before the EPA expressed its worries.
"We don't want to get ahead of the governor and department of education on this," said Dave Leland, OHA's Drinking Water program manager.
Leland said he plans to meet with the EPA again in August to continue discussing federal concerns.
Meanwhile, most Portland area schools have announced their own plans to test for lead in drinking water after tests requested by parents showed high levels at two Portland public grade schools.
The state of Oregon doesn’t require school districts to regularly test for lead. After news of the Flint, Mich., contamination, Gov. Kate Brown told state health and education regulators to study a new long term policy.
Editors note: This story has been updated to include more detail from the Oregon Health Authority about its response to the EPA's April letter.