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Province Chips Away at Lead Risk for 1,600 Students

Hundreds of water sources still contaminated in aging BC schools.

By Katie Hyslop 6 Dec 2017 | TheTyee.ca

Katie Hyslop is The Tyee’s education and youth reporter. Find her previous stories here.

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Hundreds of drinking fountains and sinks in B.C. schools still have lead contamination. Photo by Ian Sane via Flickr, Creative Commons licensed.

Six B.C. public schools will receive funding to upgrade water systems to reduce dangerous lead levels, impacting 1,600 students, the province announced this week. But there are literally hundreds more contaminated school drinking fountains and sinks across the province that still need to be fixed.

In a media release issued on Dec. 4, the education ministry announced $750,000 in funding to cover upgrades to the Children’s Development Centre in Saanich; École des Sept-sommets in Rossland; École Sundance Elementary in Victoria; the Columneetza Campus of Lake City Secondary school and Mountview Elementary in Williams Lake; and Naghtaneqed Elementary/Junior Secondary school in Nemiah Valley.

The funding comes on top of $6.5 million the ministry gave to schools with lead issues in the 2016/17 school year. The Tyee requested an interview with Education Minister Rob Fleming about those funds and the status of remaining contaminated water systems, but has yet to hear back.

The release noted all upgrades must be completed by March 31, 2018, as a condition of the funding. But Kevin Futcher, secretary treasurer of the Cariboo-Chilcotin School District that includes the Williams Lake and Nemiah Valley schools, says the actual timeline is even shorter.

“It has to be done by the middle of March so that we can report it for the year end of March 31 for the ministry. So it’s going to be really tight on time,” he said, adding the district will likely need to hire a contractor for the work on Lake City Secondary.

Futcher heard about the funding announcement through a local radio station on Monday, adding as of Tuesday he had yet to receive official notice from the ministry.

All three schools will have some pipes and taps replaced, at an anticipated cost of $498,000. According to the Vancouver Sun, which created an online database of lead testing results last September, 16 out of 51 water fountains and sinks tested in the Cariboo-Chilcotin district had unsafe lead levels.

In all, just over a quarter of the 10,000 school drinking water sources tested in B.C. in 2016/17 had unsafe lead levels. There have been no reported cases of students or staff showing signs of lead poisoning.

The culprit is lead soldering in pipes, allowed under the BC Building code until 1990.

Cariboo-Chilcotin still has two more schools with unsafe levels of lead in the watering. Water coolers have been installed at all five schools until repairs are completed. The district is applying for more government funding to fix the problem in all five schools, but there are complications with one school built in the 1950s.

“The plumbing’s actually in the foundation,” said Futcher. “Ideally we’d replace the school, but that’s probably about $20 million.”

The Conseil scolaire francophone de la Colombie-Britannique (CSF), which rents École des Sept-sommets in Rossland and École Sundance Elementary in Victoria, has received official word from the ministry that the province will cover the estimated $155,000 to replace all the plumbing and water fountains at both schools. Work on École des Sept-sommets is almost complete, while work on École Sundance has yet to begin.

CSF Secretary Treasurer Sylvain Allison said the district initially asked the ministry for money last winter.

“We work with the health authority of each region. If there’s any risk, we follow their recommendation to diminish or avoid any risks,” he said, which have included flushing the pipes by running the taps or fountains for a few minutes every morning, or supplying schools with water bottles.

Another two schools rented by CSF, Lampson Elementary in Victoria and L'École Francophone Entre-lacs in Penticton, are still waiting on funding to fix their water problems. In the meantime, the district is supplying the schools with bottled water.

It’s unclear if the two CSF schools in Victoria are included in the 313 Greater Victoria School District fountains and sinks that had unsafe levels of lead, representing 51.1 per cent of fountains and sinks in the district — the highest percentage in the province. The district conducts lead tests on their water three times a year, and expects the results of their fall tests in the coming weeks.

Vernon is tied with Victoria, with 47 of its 92 water fountains and sinks testing positive for unsafe lead levels in 2016/17.

In an email to The Tyee, Vernon school district communications coordinator Maritza Reilly said 60 per cent of those water sources have already been replaced, while the main water stations at five schools have been or are scheduled to be replaced.  [Tyee]

Read more: Education, BC Politics

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