Water testing doesn't break budgets, but many schools could pay less

By the time Maine Township High School District 207 had tested all of its nearly 200 drinking water sources at its three campuses and removed, rebuilt or replaced eight drinking fountains that had lead problems, the cost to the district was about $8,795.

With a student population of 6,300, district officials said that peace of mind works out to less than $1.50 per pupil.

“That's not a bad investment,” said Dave Ulm, director of facilities for District 207.

Even in the few suburban districts that tested extensively and found significant contamination, like Addison Elementary District 4 and St. Charles Unit District 303, total costs came in under $50,000.

“We took an aggressive option in testing, and while it was more expensive, it was easier to defend,” said District 303 Superintendent Don Schlomann. Tests of 577 water samples revealed 126 of them had lead contamination above the federal safety standard of 15 parts per billion in a liter of water.

In all, a Daily Herald analysis of 92 suburban school districts showed 59 districts performed some level of water testing for lead contamination and remediation, mainly in the last year, at a cost of about $360,000 combined.

However, some districts are paying a premium and relying on contractors for work they could do themselves. Some had to pay for retests because initial testing was performed during the summer or winter break when lead readings skewed high because of a faucet's inactivity.

West Aurora Unit District 129 paid $3,750 to a La Grange-based environmental firm over the summer to collect and test 20 water samples from five of its 17 schools for lead and copper contamination. That's $187.50 per sample. If district staff had done the collection — a simple process of filling a liter bottle with water from an outlet that hasn't been used for at least six hours — and sent the samples to McHenry Analytical Water Laboratory, it would have cost $30 per sample plus $15 for shipping all 20 samples. That's a total of $615, or a savings of $3,135.

“When we went down this road, we went with a trusted vendor that we have used for other environmental issues,” District 129 spokeswoman Angela Smith said. “I personally was not aware that the type of tests ... were available at that price point. Should we need to do more testing in the future, we may be able to start with that type of test.”

Meanwhile, Crystal Lake High School District 155 officials hired Barrington-based Pepper Environmental Technologies for $9,170 to perform a comprehensive examination of drinking water at four campuses, collecting 203 samples. That amounts to a little more than $45 per sample.

“You want to check everything because the contamination is either going to be the fixtures or the plumbing,” said Michael Grant, Pepper's vice president. “And with a lot of suburban schools that are older, they're going to have fixtures that are more likely to have lead in them. That's the trouble.”

In the 92 school districts where the Daily Herald requested water quality test results, only 319 of 653 schools had any kind of examination and 69 had at least one sample above the federal safety standard for lead. Nine are awaiting results, and 325 schools went unchecked.

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