Slow trickle

April 08, 2003

WHY DIDN'T this crackdown take place 10 years ago?

Had that happened, the city school system might be further along at replacing lead-soldered pipes or filtering drinking fountain water in its old buildings.

Of course, if the school system facilities staff had taken its duty seriously, an outside agency wouldn't be enforcing warnings about potentially high lead levels in the water. Somebody had to do it.

And parents might not have felt it necessary to threaten a lawsuit to jolt bureaucrats to action.

But that, as they say, is water under the bridge.

As of Friday, 15 schools still had not complied fully with city Health Commissioner Peter L. Beilenson's Feb. 26 order to shut off water to all school drinking fountains and hang warning signs over sinks. His office issued 60 more citations as of last week, and estimates their accompanying fines are approaching $11,600. A new round of inspections will begin today.

Overzealous? It was a blanket order cutting off water even in schools that were not cited 10 years ago as having high levels of lead contamination, so perhaps in principle this crackdown could be called that. Some schools did comply a decade ago with orders to shut off tainted fountains; some were repaired. Maybe the Health Department could have been a better watchdog.

But the failure to closely monitor and repair the problem for a decade still belongs to the school system.

After allowing a slow trickle to grow into an ocean of trouble, it's unseemly now to whine about the difficulty of temporary measures ordered to protect staff and children from lead-contaminated water. And it's not fair to pass the problem along to the children: At some schools, parents report, paper cups are rationed or refused now that water flows only from coolers.

All energy now should be invested in the long-term solution, which may include some combination of bottled water, filtration systems and pipe replacements - on a school-by-school basis. Mark Smolarz, the school system's chief operating officer, says officials are working first to turn on the fountains that are not lead-tainted, and searching for solutions for those that are.

But the real priority must be retesting every faucet - and more than 3,500 water fountains - for lead contamination so that the extent of the problem comes to light: Operating on inspections from a decade ago won't do. Until this data is available, the proper solutions can't be ventured. The cost will be unknown, as will the potential sources of funding for what surely will be a multimillion-dollar venture, part repair, part capital expense. Much more must be done to ensure that fixing this problem is on a fast track, and that the water problem isn't eclipsed by the many other challenges faced by the schools . In a school system that is searching for a new CEO and recruiting new school board members, this is the issue that tips the bucket: Who wants to run a system that cannot get something as basic as water right?

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