Timeline: Lead in Portland drinking water

When Portland leaders learned about high lead levels and how officials responded. 

The latest on the lead discovery

PORTLAND, Ore. – Tests that found high levels of lead in the water at two Portland schools in March raised questions about when Portland Public Schools learned about the contamination and why school leaders waited so long to tell parents about the issue.

Issues at other metro-area schools and at Portland Parks and Recreation also surfaced, showing in many cases the water that children drink hasn't been tested in years if ever. 

Here is a comprehensive timeline of what happened and when.

Summer 2000: PPS began testing its drinking water in buildings, based on protocols set by the Environmental Protection Agency.  According to PPS, about 1 percent of the tests yielded levels of lead over 15 parts per billion (ppb), or the maximum contaminant level set by the EPA. The school said water filters were the problem and the filters were replaced.

2001: Ten percent of the schools’ water filters were tested and none found lead over 15 ppb. The district said it decided not to test the water after that because it assumed the filters were effective.

2010-2012: PPS conducted additional lead testing at 90 school buildings and elevated lead levels were found at 47 sites. An email obtained by the Willamette Week shows district officials discussed the problem.

2011-2013: Portland Parks & Recreation found elevated levels of lead at the Multnomah Arts Center but did not install filters until May 31, 2016. 

The department said system-wide lead tests in fountains at parks and park buildings have never been conducted and many drinking fountains have never been tested. KGW tested 15 drinking fountains at city parks and results were all far below the EPA action level. 

The parks department said it will not conduct a system-wide test; instead, it will select some locations based on whether they meet certain criteria.   

February 2016: The Parent Teacher Association at Creston Elementary began a project to replace drinking fountains at the school and add water-bottle-filling stations. When they were told lead tests hadn’t been conducted for 15 years, they asked for tests. Rose City Park Elementary also requested lead testing.

March 22: Initial testing for lead in sinks and water fountains was conducted at Creston and Rose City Park schools. According to Creston PTA president Lisa Kensel, PPS Senior Manager of Environmental Health and Safety Andy Fridley oversaw the testing.

PPS Superintendent Carole Smith was forwarded an email about the testing. She maintains she did not know about the test results until May 25. 

March 31: Results from the initial tests showed lead in water fountains as high as 33 parts per billion at a Creston and 31 ppb at Rose City Park. Lead in sinks were found to be as high as 33 ppb at Rose City Park and 23 ppb in a food preparation sink at Creston.

April 13: The Creston PTA and principal were informed of the testing results, according to Kensel. PPS told Kensel the fixtures where high levels of lead were found had been replaced, per EPA protocol.

April 14: The Creston PTA requested full tests of all drinking fountains and sinks at the school.

April 22: Comprehensive lead tests were conducted at Creston Elementary.

May 10: Results from the test found lead as high as 52 ppm in a sink at Creston, more than three times the EPA’s maximum contaminant level. 

May 16: Creston’s principal and some PTA members received the results. According to Kensel, the principal did not do anything with the results.

May 24: Kensel received the results. She said she went to the school and learned at least one of fixtures that tested high for lead had not been replaced or retested. Kensel posted signs warning students not to drink the water.

May 25: Superintendent Carole Smith said she was informed of the test results. The district sent an email to Creston parents about the tests.

May 27 at 2:00 p.m.: All PPS parents were informed of the test results in an email. Superintendent Carole Smith said the district regretted not informing parents sooner, and not following EPA protocol when replacing fixtures.   

May 27 at 10 p.m.: All drinking fountains were shut off at Portland Public Schools. 

May 31: PPS began supplying bottled water to students, faculty and staff for the remainder of the year. The district said it plans to distribute 1.1 million bottles of water.  

A document obtained May 31 showed that high levels of lead were found at 47 other Portland Public Schools buildings between 2010 and 2012. The findings were first reported by Willamette Week.

Portland Parks & Rec installed lead filters at Multnomah Arts Center fountains, five years after lead issues were first discovered. 

June 1: The Portland teacher's union president questioned whether safety is actually a priority at Portland Public Schools.

June 2: Superintendent Smith put two employees on paid leave amid the lead problems. 

June 3: The Beaverton School District turned off water at five schools, after officials said district-wide lead testing has never occurred. Other metro-area schools said they will test drinking water for lead, some for the first time in years or decades.

June 4: Portland Parks & Recreation released a statement, apologizing for not addressing lead issues at Multnomah Arts Center. The department announced it would test at three "priority park sites." 

Smith sent a letter to PPS parents and staff, apologizing for the district's response to the lead issues. 

June 6 and 7: PPS provided on-site blood lead level screenings for Creston and Rose City Park students. Two students screened at Rose City Park had elevated lead levels; none of the people screened at Creston did.

PPS expected by the end of the week to receive tests from sinks and water fountains it replaced at the two schools. 

The district said it plans to conduct comprehensive lead tests at all schools and will inform parents of the results when they get them. 

Similar tests will also be conducted at many metro-area schools

Smith said PPS summer programs will continue to use bottled water.

June 9: Last day of school for PPS students. 

June 21: Carole Smith announced she will retire at the end of the 2016-17 school year. She said the decision was not based on lead issues. 

June 28: The first results from district-wide testing at Portland schools were released. Results at two Portland school buildings showed high levels of lead and, in one building, high copper levels.

July 14: Tests from 38 schools have been released so far. All have some water sources with high levels of lead

The district said it expects to release tests from all district schools by mid-July. 

July 18: An independent investigation revealed lead issues at PPS were hidden due to mismanagement, deception and a lack of oversight. Carole Smith announced she was stepping down immediately. 

July 28: At least 21 PPS students and staff have elevated blood lead levels. Health officials are working to determine the source of lead poisoning. 

Test results from 79 schools have been released. All but one have elevated lead levels and 60 have elevated copper levels.  

Anyone worried about lead poisoning should get tested, Multnomah County Health officials said. 


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