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Whistleblower exposes issue with Chesterfield School water pipes: 'Playing with fire'

Posted at 1:25 PM, Jun 15, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-16 09:03:30-04

CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. -- A test, required annually by the Commonwealth of Virginia, to protect drinking water is not being done consistently by the Chesterfield County Public School System (CCPS).

A former CCPS maintenance worker, who asked the CBS 6 Problem Solvers to protect his identity, said he warned district leaders they were not keeping up with the required backflow preventer testing.

A backflow device is installed to prevent contamination by keeping water flowing in one direction.

"I told them that they were putting a lot of lives in jeopardy by not adhering to the laws," the former CCPS employee said. “Once I didn't get any indication that they were actually proceeding in the right direction, it really it started bothering me. I realized, of course, that it was widespread."

The employee took his school and public water contamination concerns to the Virginia Department of Health (VDH), along with pictures and videos of water lines that lacked inspection tags.

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“It opens it up to not only endangering the people in the school, but it opens it up to endangering the surrounding neighborhoods,” said the former employee.

Under the Freedom of Information Act, the Problem Solvers obtained a letter dated May 11, 2021, from the Office of Drinking Water to Chesterfield’s Director of Utilities, the Superintendent of Chesterfield County Public Schools, and the Building Official.

VDH made them aware of the allegations, the requirements under the Virginia code, and the potential hazards.

"The Office of Drinking Water (ODW) has been in constant communication with the water system since the original letter on May 11, 2021, to discuss how the water system is assisting the schools in improving their backflow prevention testing program,” VDH Office of Drinking Water Field Director James Reynolds said. “As part of our ongoing investigation, ODW will provide recommendations on how all parties can improve processes in cross-connection control. These recommendations are currently under review.”

"The backflow testing is so important, due to not knowing whether the assemblies are working or not unless we test them and for what they do by preventing contamination from getting back into the water. Then obviously if you're not doing it, you're simply playing Russian roulette," American Backflow Prevention Association Virginia Chapter President Chris Mayhew said.

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Under the Freedom of Information Act, the Problem Solvers requested backflow preventer testing records for the last two years from all Chesterfield Public Schools. Those records confirmed the district was not conducting annual testing of all its devices.

On average, 46 of its registered 293 devices were inspected annually, that’s 16% of the district’s inventory.

"A backflow, that's not tested, if there is a case of backflow, then that contamination is going back into the drinking water and whoever happens to be pouring the glass is going to drink that water," Mayhew said.

The Problem Solvers confirmed that CCPS received approximately 50 backflow test notices from the Chesterfield Department of Utilities in 2019.

“The Chesterfield Department of Utilities is committed to working with Chesterfield County Public Schools (CCPS) as they complete the backflow inspection and testing at their facilities As part of our Backflow Program, we notified CCPS in December 2019 of the owner’s requirement to inspect and test their backflow devices annually by a certified backflow inspector.,” Chesterfield County spokesperson Teresa Bonifas said.

Forty-eight devices at the CCPS fire sprinkler system were tested in summer 2019 at 45 out of 64 schools and didn’t resume until May 18, 2021. That was seven days after the district received the VDH notice.

Forty-nine devices at 45 schools have been tested thus far this year.

At Matoaca High School, the same device failed in 2019 and 2021 with the same problem.

The county said CCPS informed them the device was repaired, tested, and passed on April 14, 2020, and is now scheduled to be repaired and retested due to the results of the recent inspection.

The Problem Solvers were not provided a record of that repair, but CCPS says one was provided to County Utilities.

The failure, according to experts, left the public water line vulnerable despite CCPS pointing out that the system is a low-risk backflow device.

"It's the primary responsibility of the water purveyor, if they know that there's a hazard, there either needs to be a backflow preventer there or the one there is not being kept up or not being tested annually as it should, there really one recourse is to discontinue service," said Mayhew.

“While Chesterfield Utilities has been challenged to maintain a backflow prevention and inspection program due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have already identified and are implementing process improvements. We are committed to working with CCPS to review their backflow inventories and increase education and communication with our customers on the importance of annual inspections and testing. Lastly, we appreciate the opportunity to increase public awareness of the importance of this topic and the need to protect the public water system,” said Bonifas.

Between January and February 2020, 42 potable devices were tested in 33 of 64 Chesterfield County Public schools. The Problem Solvers were not provided any history of testing for the following 14 Chesterfield County Public schools:

  • Bon Air Elementary School
  • Clover Hill Elementary School
  • Crenshaw Elementary School
  • Crestwood Elementary School
  • A.M. Davis Elementary School
  • Falling Creek Elementary School
  • Gordon Elementary School
  • Harrowgate Elementary School
  • Matoaca Elementary School
  • Old Hundred Elementary School
  • Reams Elementary School
  • Swift Creek Elementary School
  • Manchester Middle School
  • Carver College and Career Academy

“I just can't imagine why you would risk people's health that way,” a Woodlake mother, who said her daughter was treated for, but never tested for Legionnaire's disease as a 5th grader at Clover Hill Elementary School last year, said.

Clover Hill is one of the 14 schools for which the Problem Solvers 6 did not receive any testing data.

“If they're not getting the test done that they need to properly on the water system, what else are they not testing?” asked the mom. “We put our trust in the schools to be doing what they're supposed to be doing.”

In an email dated September 25, 2019, the concerned parent wrote the Virginia Department of Health.

“I would like for the CDC to do further investigation into the air quality and maintenance of Chesterfield County, VA schools, specifically the cooling towers and HVAC systems. This summer there were several cases where county residents tested positive for Legionnaire's and also several schools' cooling towers also tested positive for the bacteria.

The county is stating that there is no correlation between any of the confirmed cases and the condition of the schools, HOWEVER, my daughter (5th grader) is currently being treated as if she has been exposed to the bacteria based on her symptoms, multiple tests ruling out other possibilities, and trips to the doctor.

She has been sick for over two weeks now. She has just completed a round of azithromycin and we are still on round the clock breathing treatments every 4 hours.

Her doctor (the attending physician in her pediatrician’s group) said she had seen several other children within Chesterfield County that she was also treating for the bacteria exposure, but had not tested a single one. I'm also aware through conversations with additional resources that there are other children being treated through other facilities, but not tested.

My daughter was not tested. I was pushed and given all the reasons why the test would be irrelevant.

So my question is, how many cases are there truly out there that DO have correlation to the problems with the bacteria being found in the cooling towers in Chesterfield County schools?

Maybe if testing was being done (on those being treated) responsibly the county would realize they have a much larger problem at hand.

“It made me mad then,” she said. “She missed three weeks of school at the beginning of the year, and it was just masked over and brushed off and I just I would hate for her to have to do that again and I hate for anyone else to possibly be exposed to that. It's scary for sure," she added.

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"They’re playing with fire and saving money, or attempting to,” said the former employee. “They attempt to save a lot of money, just like they did with the Legionella and they kind of downplayed that by saying that it was a lack of maintenance. The one word they left out was that it was an intentional lack of maintenance. That was a conscious decision made by the administrators to stop treating that water, just like it was a conscious decision made by them to not test the backflow.”

“Did you get fired?” Problem Solver Laura French asked.

“No, ma'am, I resigned,” the former employee responded.

“What's your motivation for talking?” French asked.

“My motivation is to see Chesterfield change in a way where they're held accountable. Because my daughter went to those schools. Okay, and also the fear that, you know, something could happen, and I have knowledge of it, and then I'd be the one who couldn't sleep at night. So that's, that's my motivation.”

"If you know that you could possibly be putting people in jeopardy on that scale that they are, that's way immoral.”

CCPS spokesperson Shawn Smith said, “In November of 2019 the position of PM [Preventative Maintenance] Manager was created and filled to identify and address issues resulting from years of deferred maintenance. The Director of Facilities and the PM Manager identified discrepancies while reviewing the list provided by County Utilities in January 2020.“

Smith said as a result of COVID, the efforts of the plumbing department shifted and then backflow device inventory resumed again in November 2020. He said inventories for all 68 buildings were completed in January 2021.

Smith said a $40,000 contract for future inspections was awarded June 4, 2021, He added the PM Manager was working with contractors to schedule the remaining inspections. Those inspections were expected to be completed before schools reopen in the summer and will be performed annually.

He said the district continued to review and reconcile inventories with County Utilities and classify all backflow devices.

Click here to read the full statement provided by Chesterfield County Public Schools.

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