Second school water test planned

Officials downplay any town link to ‘exceptionally high’ lead, copper results.

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At a joint meeting of Tisbury’s board of health and water commissioners on Tuesday, an agreement for follow-up lead and copper testing at the Vineyard Montessori School was struck.

The agreement comes after results from a June test taken from a water service line to the school showed lead and copper levels that were “exceptionally high,” according to a consultant’s letter. 

That letter, from Environmental Partners’ Ryan Allgrove, a consultant for the water commissioners, recommended a different style of sample extraction than what was done in early June. As The Times previously reported, under the supervision of water superintendent Chris Cassidy, the Montessori School excavated a water line adjacent to a Tashmoo Avenue water main, cut into it, and took samples. The samples were taken after a prior test in one of the school’s two buildings showed elevated lead levels. Those results came during the winter, and the school resorted to using bottled water only. The school replaced all the fixtures in that building, and installed filters, and still got an elevated result in a subsequent test. The water department suggested old interior plumbing solder might be to blame, but the head of the Montessori School, Debbie Jernigan, previously said a plumber dismissed the idea. 

With the suspicion the contamination might be coming from outside the school, Jernigan advocated for a supervised excavation test close to the water main on Tashmoo Avenue, and got it. The samples from that test were returned in early July from a Westborough laboratory, and showed a lead concentration of 18.25 mg/l (which translates to 18,250 ppb — parts per billion. The results also showed a copper level of 40.90 mg/l. The lead concentration is over 1,200 times the EPA action level, while the copper concentration is about 40 times the EPA action level. The interior results weren’t remotely as high. 

At Tuesday’s meeting, health board member Michael Loberg called the excavation test results “confounding.”

David Schwab, chair of the water commissioners, didn’t see the results as indicative of contamination from the town water system. Schwab said the town’s water mains, per assistant water superintendent James Cleary and Environmental Partners, didn’t have lead in them. 

“As Environmental Partners said in their letter,” Schwab said, “there is no lead or copper in the distribution system of the Tisbury Water Works.” 

The letter, which was obtained by The Times, contains no such absolute declaration.

”It is unlikely that the service line sampling results are representative of the [Tisbury Water Works] distribution system water,” the letter states. “Elevated levels of lead and copper in the Vineyard Montessori School are most likely due to the plumbing materials in the school building.” 

Health agent Maura Valley was nonplussed by the test results, and said they made “absolutely no sense.” 

Valley went on to say, “So I think we need to get a new sample, without digging up the whole yard and everything like that.”

The letter recommended much the same.

“[Environmental Partners] recommends retesting the distribution system water on Tashmoo Avenue via a standard sampling tap or sampling station, rather than from the service pipe within an open excavation,” the letter states. 

Schwab backed doing as Environmental Partners suggested. 

Another reason Schwab said he was confident the problem wasn’t in the town system is because in 2021, a number of routine tests the water department did at residences resulted in several “non-detects” for lead and copper, and a number of “very low-level lead and copper readings.” 

Cleary said, “All our water mains are lead-free.”

For argument’s sake, Loberg asked those in the joint meeting to assume the high test results were real. He asked, “[C]ould they be the result of other things getting in, changing the pH, which would definitely change things?” 

“No, because there is no lead or copper in the distribution systems,” Schwab said. He added, “Even if you took powdered lead and put it in the system — by the time it distributes to the whole system, it would be so dissipated that you wouldn’t get a reading. That was one of the things we really put to Environmental Partners, is there any possible way …”

Nevertheless, Loberg wondered if something could “scrub” lead from a waterline “somewhere.” He went on to say, “An error of some kind seems certainly possible, somewhere. Even then I almost think we need to get to the bottom of it.”

“I don’t think anybody disagrees there,” Schwab said. He added there was no way for those heavy metals to enter the water system “except at the pump stations, and that would show up in other places.”

During the meeting, The Times mentioned Cassidy, who wasn’t present, previously said water department records weren’t great in some areas.

“He mentioned the water service,” Schwab said. He described a water service line as a line that connects a house to the water main, and stressed the two types of lines were “[t]wo very different items.”

Schwab said the water department has a “detailed” and “complete” map of the water mains, and whether they are made of PVC, ductile iron, or AC pipe. 

Asked by The Times if old lead lines were replaced, or if there are no records of them going in in the first place, Schwab said, “That’s sort of beyond me. That was way before me. But I have never heard of a lead main.”

He also said, “Typically, if a problem shows up at a residence, it’s either from the service line or from the interior plumbing.”

When asked by The Times if an anomaly could have occurred in the system between the 2021 tests that included tests at the Montessori School (one of which was a non-detect) and the 2022 high results, Schwab didn’t see it as a possibility. 

“Again, there is no lead or copper in the distribution system,” he said. “That was made very clear by Environmental Partners. I don’t know where it would come from. I don’t know how it would get inside.”

When asked by The Times if lead could leach into the system from a service line, Schwab described it as nearly impossible. 

“Can’t leach backwards,” he said. “That’s not hydraulically possible. I think the only way that could happen … [is] if there was a major fire and they actually pulled enough water backwards.”

When The Times pointed out that a major fire did happen in the vicinity (the February Hackney House fire), Schwab discounted the prospect. 

“There’s no lead services down there,” he said. “It wouldn’t just sit in the pipe. The thing about the water in the town, it’s in constant motion. There’s no standing water, especially in that area, because the main goes from Main Street, it goes up Tashmoo Ave. and then connects to Franklin. So you have constant circulation around there.”

Tisbury Fire Chief Greg Leland previously estimated 200,000 gallons of water were used to fight the fire. 

Water commissioner Roland Miller said such a phenomenon didn’t jibe with water tests taken “in September and October of 2021,” which he said were nearly half non-detects. Miller didn’t explain the relevance of tests taken prior to the fire if water use was suspected as a cause. 

Loberg asked what else could be done to make sure “kids have no harm?”

He asked if there should be urine tests on kids to “help make sure that they are safe.”

“That would be a medical question,” Schwab said.

“We are the board of health,” Loberg said.

“I do know some families went to their pediatrician for tests,” Jernigan said. But she said no elevated blood levels came back from tests performed. She reminded those in the Zoom the kids have been drinking bottled water. 

Health board chair Jeff Pratt advocated for testing as Environmental Partners recommended.

Jernigan said she was onboard with doing so, and emphasized the school wished to work in a cooperative manner on the problem. 

Valley said she and Cleary would work with Jernigan to make the sampling happen.

She also brought up the idea of replacing the service line, depending on what the next results showed. Cleary was in agreement.