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Environmental contamination shuts down Pennsylvania schools

Michael Rubinkam
Associated Press
Gov. Tom Wolf speaks at a news conference in his Capitol offices as he unveils a $1.1 billion package intended to help eliminate lead and asbestos contamination in Pennsylvania's schools, homes, day care facilities and public water systems, Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020 in Harrisburg, Pa. Looking on are Democratic state lawmakers and officials from teachers' unions. (AP Photo/Marc Levy)

Students at three Pennsylvania schools were told to stay home Thursday amid ongoing concerns over lead and asbestos contamination, as Pennsylvania State Police investigate what former district officials did to address problems with tainted water.

One day after Gov. Tom Wolf unveiled a $1.1 billion plan to help Pennsylvania’s public schools remediate lead and asbestos, crews in the Scranton School District were conducting air quality tests and making emergency repairs.

“All of these things are alarming and upsetting to parents and staff and we want to be as communicative as possible,” said Katie Gilmartin, president of the Scranton School Board.

Wolf’s proposal would expand an existing grant program to make money available for lead and asbestos removal in Pennsylvania schools, though its prospects for passage in the Republican-controlled Legislature are unclear.

More:Wolf proposes $1.1B to target lead, asbestos in Pa. schools

School districts statewide have been grappling with how to address environmental hazards in aging school buildings. Asbestos is a known carcinogen, while lead can cause lifelong brain damage and other injuries, especially in children.

A 2018 state law encourages schools to test for lead in drinking water annually, though it does not mandate testing, and the state Department of Education does not track how many districts have tested. Schools that find high levels of lead are required to notify the state and act immediately to prevent people from drinking contaminated water.

As of the end of November, testing had revealed excess lead concentrations in more than 100 buildings in more than 30 Pennsylvania school districts, vocational-technical and charter schools, and other public education buildings.

In Scranton, district officials announced high lead levels at 38 sinks and water fountains in several schools, including at least one of the three schools closed Thursday. Those three schools – along with a fourth announced Thursday afternoon – will be closed again Friday as officials evaluate and remediate asbestos.

“We will keep these buildings closed until all are deemed safe for students and staff,” Superintendent Melissa McTiernan wrote in a message on the district’s website.

As the district works to make its buildings safe, state authorities – and parents – are trying to figure out what took so long.

“They were supposed to fix this years ago and they haven’t. So now we’re dealing with the mess and the cleanup and once again, the kids are the ones that suffer,” Barbara Richter, whose grandchildren attend two of the schools that were closed Thursday, told WNEP-TV.

An environmental engineer said he first notified district officials in 2016 that he had found elevated lead levels in drinking water. Joseph Guzek said that when he returned in December 2018 and again in December 2019, he also found lead in the water.

“I was told, when I had been down in 2016, that they were going to take care of this,” he said. “Then in 2018 we give them the same report, and in 2019 we give them essentially the same report. We don’t know whether corrective action was taken and the sinks were turned off like we asked.”

Guzek said state police interviewed him about his findings this week. He added that top district administrators – who began working at the district last year and were unaware of the previous testing – took immediate steps to address the situation when he submitted his latest report earlier this month.

Gilmartin, the school board president, said Thursday it’s “very alarming” that problematic sinks and fountains evidently weren’t addressed by previous district administrators.

“Safety is the No. 1 priority, obviously,” she said. “Even if it seems like we can’t afford to do this now, we can’t afford not to do it and we can’t afford to let it get worse.”