Rep. Luria questions delay in VB schools’ notice about elevated lead levels in drinking water

Virginia Beach

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — Congresswoman Elaine Luria has released a statement publicly inquiring about the presence of lead in drinking water at Virginia Beach City Public Schools.

Her concerns are specifically about the division’s delay in alerting the public and its distribution of information “that may have created a false sense of safety,” according to a news release from the congresswoman.

On Tuesday, WAVY.com reported there was a weeks-long delay between initial testing results indicating elevated lead levels in mid-September and notification of the public Nov. 6. The information was based on documents procured under a Freedom of Information Act request.

The bottom of Luria’s letter cites WAVY.com’s coverage.

In the news release Wednesday, the 2nd Congressional District representative asked Virginia Beach school officials whether they would be willing to provide voluntary blood testing for all children, faculty and staff at the affected schools.

Rep. Luria also asked officials to commit to notifying those affected by the elevated lead levels and the public within 24 hours of any new finding. She asked officials to provide public access to raw data from the lead testing by Dec. 13 so independent testing can be done to verify the accuracy of the results.

“The VBCPS website states that the delay in notification was due to the need to secure the impacted sites and develop a communications strategy. Unfortunately, it fails to explain why the sites could not have been secured after a public announcement,” Luria wrote in the letter. “I am troubled that developing a communications strategy was prioritized over providing parents vital information related to the health of their children.”

She requested a written response from officials by Dec. 6.

Virginia Beach Public Schools sent out a news release several hours later in response to Luria’s letter.

“No one has been or remains more concerned about the presence of lead in the drinking water within some of our schools than I am,” Superintendent Aaron Spence said in the release. “Within five hours of my being aware of these test results, our facilities team began working and has been working overtime ever since to secure, remediate and retest sites that returned lead levels exceeding EPA guidelines.”

In the release, School Board Chair Beverly Anderson also stated the suggestion that “VBCPS is not always working on behalf of its students and staff is troubling.”

The full response is included in full at the bottom of this story.

Rep. Luria added she was concerned that information on the Virginia Beach City Public Schools website may be misleading about the lead levels. The website states the results were below the “actionable” level of 15 parts per billion (ppb) that poses a risk to children, while a 2016 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics says water fountains in schools should have lead levels below 1 ppb.

Elevated lead levels in 27 Virginia Beach schools were first announced Nov. 6.

The notice was sent to families from the superintendent. In the notice, the school division told parents the water testing was done in response to a change in Virginia law in 2017 that required schools to test drinking water.

The law prioritizes schools built in or before 1986.

RELATED: Elevated levels of lead found in 9 additional sites in Virginia Beach schools

The letter was sent to Spence, School Board Chair Beverly M. Anderson, Virginia Beach Mayor Bobby Dyer, and Virginia Beach Acting City Manager Tom Leahy.

Here is the full response from VBCPS, which was sent out at 9:10 p.m. Wednesday:

Dr. Aaron Spence, Superintendent of Virginia Beach City Public Schools, has seen a press release containing a letter addressed to him, dated November 20, from Congresswoman Elaine Luria that expressed concern about water test results that showed actionable lead levels in some drinking sites at some schools.

“No one has been or remains more concerned about the presence of lead in the drinking water within some of our schools than I am,” responded Spence. “Within five hours of my being aware of these test results, our facilities team began working and has been working overtime ever since to secure, remediate and retest sites that returned lead levels exceeding EPA guidelines. Once senior leadership had knowledge of water issues, the most accurate and comprehensive information was relayed to the public in the timeliest manner possible. Delivering that information piecemeal without any context or medical guidance would have been, quite frankly, irresponsible.”

The letter was copied to Virginia Beach Mayor Bobby Dyer, Virginia Beach Acting City Manager Tom Leahy and VBCPS School Board Chair Beverly M. Anderson.

“Of course the congresswoman has every right to ask questions on behalf of her constituents, but to suggest VBCPS is not always working on behalf of its students and staff is troubling,” said Anderson, who also learned of the letter via the press release. “Given the lack of legislative guidance around water testing in schools, we took the initiative to develop a testing protocol and have done our best to safeguard the health and safety of students and staff with little to no direction, funding or support. Although the school division does not have a duty to report according to any policy or legislation around this issue, our superintendent believed it to be the right thing to do in notifying our families. We have set an example for the Hampton Roads area regarding our transparency around this issue, and the congresswoman criticizes us for that very thing.”

Since becoming aware of the issue, senior leadership has been meeting regularly with Virginia Beach Public Utilities, the Virginia Beach Department of Public Health, the Virginia Department of Health and others for guidance on water testing procedures, results and how to improve the process in the future.

“This collaboration has proven invaluable as we endeavor to best serve our students, faculty and families,” said Chief Operations Officer Jack Freeman. “We would like to invite the congresswoman into this partnership and welcome her guidance and perspective as we explore the lessons learned. We intend to develop a water testing program that can serve as model for schools across the state.”

Congresswoman Luria also had specific questions about the testing process and subsequent actions. These queries are listed and answered below.

1. What was the concentration, expressed in parts per billion, of lead found at each VBCPS site identified as above the EPA actionable level of 15 parts per billion?

The concentration, expressed in parts per billion, of lead found at each VBCPS drinking or food prep site identified as above the EPA actionable level of 15 parts per billion are on our site: https://www.vbschools.com/about_us/schools/safewater/resources/ConsumptionAreas

2.What caused the delay between the “mid-September” date when the first results indicating elevated lead were found and October 25, when senior staff were notified?

When senior staff was notified on October 25, remediation efforts began within five hours, and the focus remains on our current and future testing process. We have engaged a consulting firm to conduct an independent after-action review and we will share the findings of that study once they are available.

3.Why was the public notified on November 6 when senior staff were notified on October 25?

For a topic this important, it was imperative that we communicate the most accurate and thorough information to all constituents. That meant consulting with the Virginia Department of Health and Virginia Beach Public Utilities for their guidance, assembling a central location for the information and setting up a call center for the community in case they had additional questions after receiving our initial communication.

4. Why did VBCPS fail to initially identify nine sites tested during the summer of 2019 as having elevated lead levels?

When the contractor who performed the testing reviewed their field notes, they realized that those sites had initially been misidentified. As soon as they made us aware, we notified the affected schools.

5. On what basis do you claim that the level of lead found in the VBCPS system is “markedly below” levels that could pose a threat to children?

VBCPS worked in partnership with the Virginia Beach Department of Public Health, The University of Virginia’s Clinical Toxicology Program and Virginia Beach Public Utilities to provide information to families via letter and on our website. This language was suggested by multiple medical practitioners with expertise in this area. According to the Virginia Department of Health, there have only been three reported cases of elevated blood lead levels in children in 2019, none of whom were school-aged. Also, none were water related.

6. Will VBCPS provide voluntary blood testing for lead concentration to all children, faculty, and staff attending any affected schools?

The safety and security of VBCPS’ educational environment is of utmost importance to protect and support students, teachers and staff. Strong partnerships with seasoned experts and professional organizations allow the division to ensure that the school community is provided with the best care. VBCPS is not a health organization, but is pleased to closely partner with the Virginia Department of Health. The Virginia Department of Health does not recommend testing children for blood lead levels solely based on VBCPS’ recent test results, believing that the water lead levels found in VBCPS present a low health risk to students and adults. Should students, teachers and staff within VBCPS’ educational environment have specific, individual concerns, the Virginia Department of Health recommends they see a healthcare provider. Those families who do not have access to a healthcare provider should contact the Virginia Department of Health, who will provide resources to them.

7. If elevated levels of lead are found at any VBCPS school site going forward, how quickly can parents, faculty, and staff expect to be notified? Will you commit to notifying these groups and the public within 24 hours of any new finding?

Any water source with actionable lead level test results will be secured immediately. VBCPS is committed to sharing accessible, thorough and accurate information. We are working in partnership with the Virginia Department of Health and Virginia Beach Public Utilities to complete all water testing and report the results in a comprehensive and timely manner. For example, as soon as we became aware of the issue with the contractor data mentioned in item 4, we notified affected schools and families. We also believe the state law associated with testing public school water for lead needs to be more specific. Administration will work with our local delegation in the General Assembly to advocate for this change. In the absence of clear legislative guidance at both the state and national levels, we have worked collaboratively with local experts to make certain we are taking appropriate steps with the information we have. We will continue to take every reasonable precaution to safeguard the health of our students and staff and will notify them of any testing and testing results as quickly as possible.

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