In lieu of a fine, Water Works replaces lead water line at St. Aloysius on the Ohio in Sayler Park

All CPS schools undergoing tests, too

CINCINNATI -- The 95 students at St. Aloysius on the Ohio in Sayler Park can drink from the school's water fountains again.

For a few weeks late last year, they were drinking bottled water after the school's water supply tested high for lead.

In October, the school had its water tested for the first time ever, said Principal Kristin Penley. There's no state or federal requirement that schools test their water for lead.

Penley was prompted to have tests done after hearing that the Greater Cincinnati Water Works did the tests for free. It's something that the utility has always offered its customers, said Jeff Swertfeger, its superintendent of water quality and treatment.

But after seeing national media reports about the problems with lead in the water supply of Flint, Michigan, management decided it needed to do more, Swertfeger said.

In the spring of 2016, in conjunction with the Cincinnati Health Department and Hamilton County Public Health, the utility created a lead educational program that included special outreach to schools, he said. It also created a website for lead awareness and education and posted an interactive map where customers could find information on lead service lines in local buildings.

Lastly, the utility sent letters to every property owner it thought could be getting water through a service line made from lead. That amounted to about 25,500 properties, Swertfeger said, with half of each line maintained by the utility and half by the property owner.

This program worked. In a normal year, Swertfeger said, the utility gets about 50 samples to be tested for lead. In 2016, it received 3,694 requests for sample kits, and 2,334 customers returned the kits for testing. Only 79, or 3.4 percent, exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's action level of 15 parts per billion.

St. Aloysius' tests, though, showed lead above 5 parts per billion in every outlet tested, with several others testing above 15 parts per billion, according to a report the utility made to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.

An investigation by the school and the utility showed that two of the school's four water supply lines were at least partly made from lead and needed replacing. Those lines could have been in the ground for more than 100 years, Penley said. The school is 130 years old.

When she learned of the problem in October, Penley said, she had the water shut off and switched to bottled water for the students. That same month, the school replaced one of the lead lines -- a job estimated to cost $15,000, but which actually cost about $1,500 because of parishioners' contributions.

After the line was replaced and more testing was done, the signs came off the school water fountains in December. That left only one line in need of replacement: A line to the school library, which doesn't have a drinking fountain, just a bathroom faucet.

But the school didn't have money to replace it. It's a poorer school, where 40 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches.

Meanwhile, also in December, the Ohio EPA notified the utility that it had broken a state law that requires utilities to notify customers promptly of testing results. In this case, the Greater Cincinnati Water Works had failed to do this for four samples tested.

The samples didn't show elevated levels of lead, Swertfeger said, but the customers were notified after about 10 days, rather than the required two days. He attributed the problem to a computer glitch.

No harm was done, he said, but "we were in violation of the requirement."

The Ohio EPA wanted to fine the utility $3,200 for the violations, but the utility proposed instead that it replace the remaining water line at St. Aloysius.

"We were looking for a place to do good," Swertfeger said.

In late January, the Ohio EPA agreed. The utility could evade the fine by replacing the line, a job estimated to cost $6,500. The job was done on Feb. 17, much to Penley's relief.

A worker with Greater Cincinnati Water Works installs a new copper water line at St. Aloysius on the Ohio in Sayler Park.

"This wasn't planned for our budget for the year," she said.

Of all the schools tested for lead in the utility's service area, St. Aloysius has had the biggest issue, Swertfeger said.

The utility is in the process of testing samples from every faucet and drinking fountain in the Cincinnati Public Schools, he said, and expects to have that completed by the end of the year.

Results of testing from local schools are available here.

It's a lot of sampling. Swertfeger estimated it amounts to about 13,000 samples altogether. Each sample would cost $10 to $20 to test at a commercial lab.

Meanwhile, the utility has replaced its half of about 10,000 of the 25,500 lead service lines it believes are still out there. Swertfeger says it has no way of knowing how many customers haven't replaced their half of those lines.

In October, Cincinnati City Council directed the utility to have all lead lines replaced within the next 15 years, he said, and the utility now is "working through how that needs to happen."

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