PORTLAND — Oregon officials knew in July 2016 that tap water in juvenile prisons had excessive levels of lead but took eight months to test the entire system and shut down bad faucets.
Full-scale testing of youth prisons in February and March came nearly six months after the state finished lead inspections on 40 other buildings where state employees lived or worked, including the governor’s mansion and the Oregon Capitol.
A spokesman for the Oregon Youth Authority blamed unforeseen contracting problems for testing delays.
“We have tried to be very conscientious and focus on the health of our youth and staff,” Benjamin Chambers said. “We didn’t want it to take this long.”
Agency officials in April pointed only to recent test results when announcing they’d taken immediate steps to close taps and distribute bottled water. But buried in a document on the state’s website was a one-line reference to testing in 2016. The agency didn’t acknowledge the existence of high samples or the delays in comprehensive testing until questioned by The Oregonian.
As a result of testing delays, faucets spewing extraordinary levels of lead went unchecked for months, staying open to unsuspecting inmates and workers. Water from one faucet ultimately tested nearly 40 times the federal “action level.”
The episode has particular resonance in an era when government authorities from Flint, Michigan, to Portland have faced huge repercussions for their handling of lead exposure in drinking water. Carole Smith, the Portland Public Schools superintendent, resigned last year amid outcry over how the district dealt with lead in school water fountains.
The state’s testing this year found high lead at more than 150 taps in nine of 11 juvenile facilities across the state. At the MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility in Woodburn, the state’s largest with 130 offenders, high lead poured from the taps of intervention cells, a kitchen drinking fountain and sinks serving restrooms.
Chambers couldn’t say whether the state’s delay jeopardized the health of inmates or workers. The state began offering free blood tests last month. Of 40 youth screened, all had less than 1.9 micrograms of lead per deciliter about a month after exposure, he said.
David Rogers, executive director for the ACLU of Oregon, said it’s the state’s responsibility to protect vulnerable people.
“It’s particularly troubling because we’re talking about incarcerated youth who have no choice about where they get their drinking water,” he said.
Oregon’s Youth Authority is the state’s prison system for juveniles ages 12 and up. About 600 youth live across 11 state facilities from the coast to Eastern Oregon.
Like scores of other government officials, agency leaders decided to sample water last year to determine if lead posed a problem in their buildings. Lead is a toxic metal that can leach into drinking water from faucets and pipes. No amount of lead exposure is considered safe, and it’s particularly harmful for children younger than 6 and pregnant women.
Last June, employees collected a limited number of water samples and sent them to a lab that was already under contract.
Of 33 samples, four exceeded the federal “action level” of 15 parts per billion, including one at MacLaren. In response, officials shut down or posted warnings for those four taps but didn’t take other action, such as providing bottled water at MacLaren, Chambers said.
The results were troubling enough to convince officials to launch comprehensive testing, Chambers added. Delays ensued.
Officials spent much of July considering how to move forward. “We knew we were going to get one shot to do this and get credible results,” said Rex Emery, the agency’s manager of facilities.
Under state rules, officials had the authority to immediately hire a consultant. For contracts up to $100,000, no competitive bid is necessary.
On July 29, state officials decided to work exclusively with consulting firm CH2M and asked for a proposal. “We knew that they would just knock it out of the park,” Emery said, citing past work by the firm.
CH2M proposed swift action. In its proposal, the firm wanted test results no later than Oct. 1, records show.
But instead, state officials spent August, September, October and November reviewing the company’s proposal and attempting to negotiate a contract. Problems cropped up.
Chambers said CH2M wanted to change terms of the proposed contract to limit the company’s liability for testing results. Lawyers for Oregon’s Department of Justice wouldn’t sign off. A spokesman for CH2M declined to discuss the contracting dispute.
Negotiations fell through Nov. 21, four months after they began. Because officials contacted only one firm, the state had no backup plan.
Two weeks later, officials declared a contracting emergency.
On Dec. 7, the Oregon Youth Authority’s director, Fariborz Pakseresht, exempted the agency from competitive bidding for any lead-testing contract, including those above $100,000. As justification, he cited “our immediate need to mitigate the level of lead in tap water.”
Then, more time passed.
Officials on Dec. 9 asked two new companies to submit proposals. One was PBS Engineering and Environmental Inc., the same firm hired by the state’s administrative division to successfully complete testing of dozens of building in October. The other was TRC Consulting.
But before state officials could pick a company, they first needed to bring consultants up to speed and share documents, Emery said. Proposals weren’t submitted until the first week of January, after the holidays.
“We weren’t sitting on our hands,” Emery said.
Then, another month passed.
On Feb. 1, state officials finally signed a contract with TRC Consulting for about $56,000.
Testing began Feb. 10. It took five weeks — finishing eight full months after officials first had evidence of high lead samples.
Emery said officials didn’t want to move forward with testing until hiring a contractor and devising a plan for fixing problems. Officials tested taps with the potential to be used for drinking, cooking and brushing teeth, going out of their way to take a “health-protective approach,” he stressed.
“I think this story is about the little agency that could,” Emery said.
Testing confirms problem
The results were jarring.
Comprehensive testing found at least one tap with high lead levels at facilities in Florence, where youth already drank bottled water, and in Albany, Grants Pass, La Grande, Salem, Warrenton, Woodburn and two facilities in Tillamook.
Of 903 tested taps systemwide, 154 exceeded the lead action level. Officials also tested for excessive levels of copper. They found 15 faucets tested positive.
Most problems were at MacLaren. Of 283 outlets tested at the Woodburn facility, 97 had high lead levels, while seven exceeded copper standards. Emery said about one-third of faucets saw little to no use, one-third were for handwashing and one-third were for drinking or cooking.
At a restroom sink, where agency officials said young offenders may have brushed their teeth, lead samples registered 38 parts per billion - more than double the federal action level, according to an inspector’s March report.
At a drinking fountain in the treatment wing, lead was 27 times the federal standard.
And at a tap inside a cell used to hold youth in need of intervention, lead levels registered almost 40 times the federal standard.
Those long-awaited test results prompted the Oregon Youth Authority to shut down access to bad taps, post warnings or provide bottled water at MacLaren and other facilities. Repairs are now in the works, Emery said, including faucet replacements. At MacLaren, agency officials hope to have most fixes complete before prisoners from a Salem facility move in later this month.
“We don’t want them coming over and moving into a place where they feel like the water’s not safe,” Emery said.
The youth authority has not conducted any formal examination of actions it took that prompted delays. Chambers said officials have begun taking stock informally, recognizing internal deadlines should have been set that would have prompted officials to hire a contractor sooner.
The state’s delays didn’t end with water testing.
Officials didn’t provide blood testing for agency employees or young offenders until April 17, 20 days after shutting off access to tainted water at MacLaren. Lead disappears from the blood stream fairly quickly, with levels dropping by half within 30 to 60 days, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Youth released between February and April were eligible for testing. But officials conceded they were unable to notify everyone.
Testing wasn’t available sooner, Chambers said, because agency officials failed to plan ahead by inking a contract.
“In retrospect, that is absolutely one of the lessons,” he said. “We should have had that in place.”