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Waterworks

THE DRINKING fountains are still shut off in Baltimore City public schools - and many may remain so for the academic year.

Schools opened this fall with bottled water and paper cups, seven months after the city Health Department belatedly cracked down on the district for ignoring lead-contaminated water in some of its buildings.

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The solution still is not in sight. A task force investigation continues; a parent advisory board is organizing. The school system fired its facilities chief and hired a consultant to help determine the scope of a health hazard first identified in 1993 and figure out how to eliminate it.

To quell parents' fears, over the summer, the Health Department tested more than 1,300 children, and confirmed - thank goodness - that those in the affected schools likely were not harmed by the lead contamination.

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Meanwhile, the department and the school system say they have stepped up monitoring, hoping to prevent ever again children being exposed to unsafe levels of lead in the drinking water.

Still unaddressed is the lethargy that until recently ran deep in the administration - was that in the water, too? City officials first, and later city-state partnership leaders, were aware of the problem and yet did not see to it that schools complied with early warnings about the water's danger. For too long, the city Health Department did not impose severe consequences.

There was no movement toward a permanent solution.

Some have suggested the school system couldn't afford to target this expensive facilities problem while a student achievement crisis was more pressing. But that's a weak argument: The only poverty to blame for the system's lack of urgency was dearth of forethought and dereliction of duty. The current school board and administration now are certainly paying the price for their predecessors' inaction.

The unexpected $1 million needed to supply bottled water to every school, shut off water valves, post warning signs and hire a water expert contributed to the district's $30 million deficit for 2003. Schools chief Bonnie S. Copeland estimates it will take the academic year to retest thousands of fixtures to determine which are safe and may be turned on, so bottled water service continues. And about $1.5 million has been budgeted to buy water filtration systems, if these prove to be acceptable; other options are being considered. The final cost cannot yet be estimated.

It didn't have to happen this way.

After receiving similar warnings, Philadelphia schools worked with the Environmental Protection Agency to pinpoint a source of their lead hazard: lead parts and tanks inside vintage water coolers and other water-dispensing fixtures. By methodically replacing these old school fixtures with modern water fountains, over three years the district has restored the drinking water in many schools to acceptable lead levels, say EPA consultants. These replacements cost about $450,000 a year (not including the water-sample testing), and the job is almost done, says a schools spokesman.

While Baltimore procrastinated.


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