By MARINA WATERS
The Washington County School System is about to become much more familiar with the water quality found in 220 of its water fountains.
Due to a new state mandate that requires all Tennessee school districts to test for lead in drinking fountains, the Washington County Board of Education unanimously agreed to enlist Wingfield Environmental to perform the tests for an estimate of $9,000 total.
“We want to be in compliance,” School board member and facilities committee chairman Todd Ganger told the Herald & Tribune. “We want no lead in our drinking water, of course. That’s the sole purpose of it, to make sure the drinking water is safe for the kids.”
The state requires that every school built before 1998 be tested within the next two years. Therefore, Washington County schools like Sulphur Springs Elementary, West View Elementary and Fall Branch — which are among some of the district’s oldest buildings — will be tested.
The only schools excluded from that list are the county’s newest schools, Grandview Elementary and Ridgeview Elementary.
The state mandate also says that should a school find 20 parts per billion or more of lead in any fountain’s water, the school system must notify the commissioner of environment and conservation, the commissioner of health, the local department of health, the local governing body and the department of education within 24 hours. Parents and guardians of the students enrolled at the affected school must also be notified within five days of the test result.
“Of course, if we have some concerned parents and folks out there it will sure set their minds at ease,” the school system’s maintenance supervisor, Phillip Patrick, said about the upcoming tests. “Do I think we’re going to find some lead in some of our water? I don’t think so. But that’s just something I couldn’t answer for sure until we get the test results back.”
Patrick said the tests will be non-intrusive and will entail drawing a sample from each fountain, which will then be tested in Wingfield’s lab. He also said testing for lead isn’t typically conducted within the school system, but that tests are performed in the schools upon complaints or concerns.
“If we have a suspicion or someone says they heard we had lead, of course we would surely go ahead and check,” Patrick said. “It’s just like we aren’t mandated to test for mold, but if we have a problem in a school or teachers or students are complaining, we will test that area. We just haven’t had a suspicion raised or anything like that to warrant a full-on, system-wide test (for water).”
Patrick also said that the district could test the water themselves, but felt entering a contract with Wingfield Environmental out of Blountville would be the best fit.
“We could take the samples ourselves if we wanted to,” Patrick said, “But I’m thinking to have full disclosure, stay on the up-and-up and not have anyone scrutinize the way we’ve done our testing, I chose to have a third party do everything.”
In preparing for the state-mandated water testing, Patrick said he’s been asked about water used in another area of the schools, but that for now, the state is focusing on water fountains.
“I’ve been getting a lot of questions about, ‘Are you checking the water in the cafeterias?’ And some of my colleagues, other maintenance directors and supervisors in our area here, they’ve talked to legislators,” Patrick said. “I have not talked to any of my legislators. The bill was written mainly for drinking water sources. That’s what we’re testing. We don’t have those type of lead pipes in our kitchens or anything like that.”
The testing is yet to be scheduled, but will conclude with a final report from Winfield, which will include results for each school, spreadsheets of all data and the actual lab data from the tests.