Deep-rooted problems at Portland Parks & Rec kept lead issues quiet for years, review finds

Failure at Portland Parks and Rec kept lead problem quiet

PORTLAND, Ore. – An internal review of the Portland Parks and Recreation’s handling of lead results at the Multnomah Arts Center showed the department failed to address problematic fixtures for years, even though officials knew about unhealthy levels of lead. 

The review found issues of follow-through, understaffing and failure to follow protocols across the board that led to kids having continued access to drinking fountains with high levels of lead, even after lead tests came back higher than the EPA action level.

The bureau also noted it did not having any policy for testing, communicating those results, escalating the issues and fixing the problems. 

The issues at Multnomah Arts Center, which houses a senior center and a Meals-on-Wheels, first became public in early June.

PP&R spokesman Mark Ross said staff at MAC ordered lead tests in 2011, 2012 and 2013 but PP&R's director, assistant director and commissioner in charge did not know about the issues until June 3.   

The tests found levels of lead about the EPA’s action level of 15 parts per billion.

More: Lead found in water at Multnomah Arts Center

The review found the MAC director repeatedly asked for lead testing and, once high levels were found, for fixtures to be replaced by PP&R officials. Those who were involved in conversations as early as 2012 included the senior facilities maintenance supervisor, a senior planner, the lead carpenter and the community centers manager at the department.

"Honestly this is my responsibility. This is a question of making clear the expectations for our staff, including my direct reports and all of my staff in the bureau," said Director Mike Abbate, at a 15-minute press availability Wednesday.

Abbate downplayed the significance of lead exposure, which can cause memory loss, anemia, kidney and brain damage, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.   

"As we look at lead in water and evaluate it as a public health risk, its not nearly as significant an issue as other kinds of environmental exposure," he said.

Review finds consistent issues, miscommunication

The 14-page review found a plethora of issues stemming from the parks department. Some notable problems:

  • The review found a work order was not consistently followed in 2011 and 2012 and the parks department didn’t have a licensed plumber until 2013.
  • Tests in 2013 showed several drinking fountains were over the EPA action level for lead and the MAC director asked for the lead plumbing to be replaced. Instead, a senior planner said it was a minor issue involving replacement filters. Neither filters nor lead plumbing was replaced after that conversation.  
  • The review shows one problematic sink was replaced in 2014 while another was left as-is and available for use.
  • In May 2015, 12 samples were tested for lead but not analyzed due to a misunderstanding about testing protocol.
  • In Jan. 2016, a work order for new lead filters filed in March 2015 was canceled by PP&R shop personnel. The rationale was “unknown pending specific conversations,” the report found.
  • In April 2016, the status of leaded plumbing at MAC was changed to “completed” and “filters installed instead” but there is no record of the work being done.
  • On May 31, 2016, the Interim Central Services Manager told the Project Manager there were “bad test results” at MAC and new drinking fountains had been installed.
  • Between June 1 and 3, 2016, three new drinking fountains were installed at MAC but only one had a proper lead filter. Staff knew about the incorrect filters and ordered them anyway. A fourth fountain that was not replaced was not turned off and no signs were put up warning of high lead levels.

Portland Parks & Recreation admitted it has not historically had any protocol for testing drinking water, but there is no law currently requiring testing at parks facilities.

The bureau said it is considering how to implement testing protocols in the future.

Ross said there is no plan for system-wide testing at PP&R. Instead, the bureau will test more than 20 facilities that house preschools.

The bureau will then consult with partners about whether additional sites warrant testing.  

The bureau previously told KGW it has never tested outdoor water fountains at city parks. KGW independently tested 15 fountains and found lead levels were below the EPA threshold.

The parks bureau said it has no plans to test any other outdoor fountains anytime soon. 

MAC Review Preliminary 7-6-16

 


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