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Lawsuit contends Amherst schools have high levels of lead, superintendent disagrees

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Staff Writer
Thursday, October 19, 2017

AMHERST — A Shutesbury resident who contends the drinking water at public school buildings in Amherst has dangerously high levels of lead has filed a lawsuit against the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Springfield this week, seeks a series of immediate corrective steps, including installation of filtration systems and provision of bottled water to students.

Superintendent Michael Morris said in an Oct. 12 statement that the district believes the lawsuit is without merit and that actions have already been taken to ensure the drinking water in school buildings in both Amherst and Pelham is safe for students and staff.

“Thanks to the work of our facilities department, in collaboration with the Amherst Department of Public Works, all of the drinking sources in all of our buildings now exceed the standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection for both lead and copper,” Morris said.

In a phone interview, Michael Hootstein, a retired hydrogeologist whose grandchild is at the Amherst Regional Middle School, said he filed the lawsuit after previously sending four letters to the school committee and having extensive discussions with school and town officials. The letters were sent after the release of voluntary testing results for lead and copper under the Assistance Program for Lead in School Drinking Water.

He compares what Amherst is facing to the situation in Flint, Michigan, where insufficient water treatment led to more than 100,000 residents being exposed to high levels of lead.

“What we’ve got here is the total dysfunction, the utter and complete dysfunction, of government,” said Hootstein, who is representing himself in the lawsuit. “I believe the water is very dangerous and I believe the tests done by DEP shows water more contaminated than Flint.”

The state’s program had the DEP and the University of Massachusetts Amherst coordinate to take water samples from 818 schools in 153 communities between April 2016 and February 2017. In Hampshire County, 21 out of 25 participating schools were found to have high levels of lead in at least one fixture, with samples testing water that had been in the pipes for eight to 18 hours.

When at least one fixture surpassed federal “action levels,” which are 15 parts per billion for lead and 1.3 parts per million for copper, schools were flagged. Statewide, 72 percent of school buildings had at least one fixture that tested high for lead or copper.

Amherst schools were among those with high level of lead, though not copper. But almost all the tests in Amherst were negative for lead when water ran for more than 30 seconds.

High levels of lead can have negative neurological impacts on children, infants and fetuses.

Morris said the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee, the subject of the lawsuit, and the Amherst and Pelham school committees were involved and kept apprised throughout the process through updates and public presentations by Morris and officials with the DPW, the Board of Health, and the local academics at UMass who oversaw the state testing program.

“We are proud of the work we have done in our district to ensure that the drinking water in our schools is safe for our children and staff,” Morris said.

Hootstein said that the job for adults is to remove poisons that are posing dangers to children, not to make proclamations defending the safety of the water.

“If we can’t get the lead out of school drinking water, we deserve to go extinct,” Hootstein said.

The lawsuit seeks to “compel the Amherst Regional School Committee to get the toxic lead out of Amherst school drinking water in accordance with scientific, evidenced-based school health and public safety standards” that Hootstein notes are in the Massachusetts Act Ensuring Safe Drinking Water at Schools and Early Childhood Programs, a bill being considered by the state Legislature. Under that proposed legislation, immediate shut-off of school drinking or cooking water outlets where water contains more than one part per billion of lead would be required.

The lawsuit also states that the regional committee was “violating the plaintiff’s and other’s rights when it gained knowledge that children, plaintiff and others” may have consumed water with high levels of lead.

An emergency injunction sought in the lawsuit would force the School Committee to provide emergency lead-free bottled drinking water and hire a plumbing contractor to install a lead-free drinking/cooking water supply service line in each lead-contaminated school, install at least four new safe lead-free “potable” water hydration stations and to periodically perform comprehensive and scientifically sound lead-testing of school water.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.