Withholding public information about a potential health hazard — “potential” being the pivotal word — is not the way to contain a community panic.This was the circumstance faced recently by …
Withholding public information about a potential health hazard — “potential” being the pivotal word — is not the way to contain a community panic.
This was the circumstance faced recently by leaders within Bradley County Schools who — in the beginning — refused to disclose the list of schools where lead levels of drinking water were determined to be unacceptably high, as tested under the new requirements of Tennessee Public Chapter 977, which took effect Jan. 1.
Dr. Linda Cash, school system director, justified her decision not to release the list to the Cleveland Daily Banner because she “[did] not want to cause public panic.”
We understand her concern, but we offer this conundrum: Which creates the worst panic … the community, and parents, not knowing their children might have been exposed to lead contaminants and then finding out later through outside sources, or the same groups having a full knowledge of what has happened and an understanding of its possible impact?
We contend knowing is always — always — better than not knowing.
It is why — after being refused the list by Cash — our newspaper followed our legal recourse by filing a Freedom of Information Act request. Within hours, the lead-testing results and the names of the affected schools, were emailed to us by Bradley County Schools.
The names were published, as were the levels of lead at each of the impacted water sources. Publishing the list, and relevant information, at the very least informed our community — and most importantly, our parents — about developments in the county school system that they should know.
It is sad we were forced to act through a FOIA request to obtain the very information that should already have been made public.
Here’s the background, and the subsequent timeline, of the events:
• In May, contractor TruePani Inc. conducted 141 water samples as taken from drinking water sources in 12 county schools that were built before Jan. 1, 1998; this included drinking fountains and sinks used for food preparation.
• In June, the preliminary results reportedly were given to the school district.
• At that point, and over the rest of the summer break, “corrective action” was reportedly taken before students returned to school in August.
Contacted by the Banner for details regarding the water sources tested, Bradley County Schools Operations Supervisor Johnny Mull — who doubles as chairman of the Bradley County Commission — issued a statement Aug. 22 to highlight the testing results:
“Of the 141 water sources tested, one water source came back with lead levels at or above the Public Chapter 977 level of 20 parts per billion (ppb),” Mull said. “Another 22 water sources came back with lead levels at or above the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended level of 1 ppb.”
The 22 water sources above 1 ppb included one water source with 15 ppb, which also required action under state law.
Public Chapter 977 dictates if a school drinking water source has levels of lead between 15 ppb and 20 ppb, “the school shall conduct lead level tests on an annual basis until retesting confirms that the level is less than 15 parts per billion.”
It goes on to state if lead levels are at or above 20 ppb, the school district must “remove the drinking water source from service,” and notify parents and guardians of students at the school where lead was found in accordance with local board policy, within five business days of the test result.
Mull said the district took immediate action to shut down and post the affected water sources. They remained out of use until corrective actions were taken, which Mull reported were done prior to students’ return to school in August.
Bradley County Schools released a summary of the lead testing results, but some details were missing, as were the names of the affected schools.
On Aug. 27, the Banner requested this additional information, including identity of the schools. Cash rejected our request, stating, “I’m not going to pinpoint them. None of our schools have lead now.”
Later that day, the Banner filed the FOIA request and received the information from Bradley County Schools that evening. It was published on Aug. 28.
As part of the story, the names of impacted schools were printed, as was the detailed list of water sources and their levels of lead. As a matter of record, the schools included Bradley Central High, Charleston Elementary, Hopewell Elementary, Lake Forest Middle, Michigan Avenue Elementary, North Lee Elementary, Prospect Elementary and Valley View Elementary.
Indeed, it is an unfortunate day when public officials seek to hide information that the public has every right to know. What could have been detailed in one front-page story, instead turned into three stories … and now, this editorial.
We suggest this to members of the Bradley County Board of Education: This not only reflects negatively on your school system leadership, it does so as well on you.
Is it just us, or does the public also want to know what’s going on?
We’ll answer that question in a future editorial.
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