Hillsborough schools will begin disclosing more data about lead in drinking water

Scene from Hillsborough County School Board meeting. Jeff Eakins addressed the School Board Tuesday about what he considered "slanted" coverage of the district's water testing in the Tampa Bay Times. (OCTAVO JONES   |   Times)
Scene from Hillsborough County School Board meeting. Jeff Eakins addressed the School Board Tuesday about what he considered "slanted" coverage of the district's water testing in the Tampa Bay Times. (OCTAVO JONES | Times)
Published August 14 2018
Updated August 14 2018

TAMPA ­­— The Hillsborough County School District will begin publicly disclosing all locations where it finds lead in schools’ water, not just the samples that tested highest, an official said Tuesday.

Detailed results from the testing lab could begin to appear on the district’s website in about 48 hours, deputy superintendent Chris Farkas told a Tampa Bay Times reporter at a School Board meeting that included district officials criticizing the newspaper’s reporting on the topic and school board members criticizing the district for not disclosing the testing sooner.

The Times published an investigation online last week and in the Sunday print edition reporting that the district failed to tell parents for more than a year after it began finding high levels of lead in some schools’ tap water. It also focused on many results that registered under 15 parts of lead per billion, the cutoff the district used for disclosing and taking action, and quoted experts saying that lower levels of leads can be unsafe for children.

READ THE INVESTIGATION: The Hillsborough School District found lead in its water. It didn’t tell parents for a year.

Superintendent Jeff Eakins, who has declined interview requests from the Times on the topic, called the newspaper’s coverage "slanted" and told the board that the district has taken "courageous" steps to ensure children have clean water to drink.

Board members praised the decision in early 2017 to test the water but criticized Eakins and his staff for keeping the tests a secret for so long.

"If we had been forthcoming with this, then we wouldn’t even be up here having this discussion," board chairwoman Sally Harris said. "We can never fall back on anything less than total transparency."

Member April Griffin said that as a parent, she would want to know that the district was testing the water in her children’s schools. She said that communications in the district has been "below average for too long" and is "whittling away at the community’s trust for this district."

Leading up to his remarks, Eakins showed several videos of television news stories on a variety of topics that he said the communications office had suggested and he considered favorable.

The Times report, which in print carried the headline "They didn’t tell," stood in contrast, he said.

"Lead makes a big splashy headline," Eakins said.

"I want to be clear about this. In every school, every time we’ve tested, our water has met the same standards for safety as the drinking water in your home," he continued. "We aren’t creating problems, we’re finding them and fixing them. And we aren’t creating a nightmare. We are preventing a nightmare. Anyone who tells you otherwise has an agenda."

Eakins also noted that the Hillsborough Department of Health endorsed the district’s lead testing program. He displayed the health department’s press release and said the department’s representatives will be at the next board meeting. The Times quoted that press release in its article.

The school district is basing its actions and communications on the premise that 15 parts per billion is the difference between water that is safe and water that is unsafe. That figure comes from guidelines set by the Environmental Protection Agency, which strongly suggests but does not require that districts test school water.

The 15 ppb figure comes from a threshold the EPA uses to regulate public water systems.

Medical authorities, however, do not consider 15 ppb to be safe — especially for young children who are most vulnerable to the permanent neurological damage that can come from ingesting lead.

So far, the district has told the public that "no issues were identified" any time a school had no fixtures below the 15 ppb mark.

If a faucet or drinking fountain showed between 5 ppb and 15 ppb — which many scientists say is high enough to cause long-term damage to children — it was not mentioned and in most cases left alone.

The decision represents a change in course, at least when it comes to telling parents the lead exists.

Communications chief Grayson Kamm said that in the individual notices to parents, "we will continue to let families know that no action was taken if the levels are all below 15 ppb."

But, he added, "we will also include a link to our website, where all our detailed results will be posted."

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or msokol@tampabay.com. Follow @marlenesokol. Contact Corey G. Johnson at (813) 490-7260 or cjohnson@tampabay.com. Follow @CoreyGJohnson.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly characterized the videos Superintendent Jeff Eakins showed to demonstrate positive news stories; they were on a variety of topics, not only lead testing.

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