Water tests find Diocese’s schools free from lead

Story by Lois Rogers, Trenton Monitor Correspondent

As Catholic school buildings around the Trenton Diocese opened for the fall term, students, faculty and staff entered with the assurance that every available water source in them has been rigorously tested and are free of lead.

Such affirmation is the result of an effort that initially began when some Catholic schools, including those in Red Bank and Belmar, took municipal officials up on offers to test for the toxic substance under a state mandate that only applied to public schools. It culminated in a diocesan initiative to test water for lead in all 38 of its schools.

The mandate had been issued early in 2016 by Gov. Chris Christie in response to mounting concerns about lead contamination in public schools around the nation, including New Jersey.

Though the state-funded mandate did not apply to nonpublic schools, the Diocese “recognized that it was important that we step up,” said Joseph Cahill, diocesan director of risk management, who oversaw testing along with the diocesan Department of Property and Construction.

Cahill noted that funding from the state has since become available to nonpublic schools. Diocesan schools are now in the process of applying for the state funds, which will go toward reimbursing the Diocese, Cahill said.

The tests were conducted by LECO Laboratory, Hamilton, a state-certified analytical testing facility, to screen for lead contamination in all elementary and high school facilities. In all, more than 1,000 samples were taken not just in the schools but in all the buildings on each campus.

“We felt it was important to have a systemic approach,” Cahill said. “We wanted to do this because we care about our children. It was one more way of protecting them.”

JoAnn Tier, superintendent of Catholic Schools, echoed Cahill, saying the diocesan initiative reflected the overall objective: the health and safety of the students. That funds have since become available to cover the costs of testing in nonpublic schools reaffirms the decision, she said.

“The health, well-being and safety of students enrolled in our Catholic schools are areas of primary concern. To that end, when lead testing became a requirement for public schools, there was immediate agreement that our Catholic schools would also complete the water testing to ensure compliance with EPA requirements,” she said.

School districts that began testing their water sources before the diocesan initiative included St. Rose High School and grammar school, Belmar, and Red Bank Catholic and St. James Elementary, Red Bank.

Sister of St. Joseph Kathleen Nace, president of St. Rose High School, and RBC principal Robert Abatemarco shared how municipal officials extended preliminary testing to the Catholic schools in the towns.

By the time the state issued its mandate in 2016, notoriety surrounding the issue was a matter of discussion on both campuses, the two school leaders said.

“The whole country was concerned about lead in schools,” Abatemarco said. “When the town of Red Bank [offered to test] last summer, we were happy to do it.”

Sister Kathleen sounded a similar note in Belmar, where municipal testing was done during the 2016 Easter break. “Concerns were raised, and we said, ‘Let’s be proactive.”

Those initial tests and the Diocese’s more rigorous tests later eased all concerns about contamination, said Sister Kathleen and Abatemarco, both noting that the reports came back well within acceptable parameters.

Testing also began in March 2016 on the campus of St. Joseph Parish, Toms River, home to St. Joseph School and Donovan Catholic. The site was a natural starting point, Cahill said, as it was St. Joseph’s facilities manager, Michael Penner, who honed in on the state mandate and raised the prospect of the Diocese testing the water in its schools.

By the end of July 2017 – also the deadline for public schools – all diocesan schools had been tested and results were in hand, said Cahill, adding that any school found to have a contaminated point source “has been informed of what to do,” which is to take the offending point source out of service immediately and replace it.

The intervention led to the removal and replacement of a small number of water sources, or fixtures, in buildings around the Diocese, including two locations on the Toms River campus, which, Penner said, were immediately put out of service.

“We look out for our children. We want to provide them with a safe environment, and we thought we should be proactive in this approach,” said Penner, who praised the Diocese for moving swiftly to take on the responsibility of the effort.

The initiative was also appreciated by Carla Chiarelli, principal of Our Lady of Good Counsel School, Mooretown. In a letter to parents after test results were returned July 19, Chiarelli noted that of the 13 sampled locations, one – a kitchen sink in the Quinn House – exceeded the lead limit of 15 parts per billion and was immediately removed from service.

“With the concerns about water in our area, the Diocese took quick action and invested time and energy in getting our schools tested,” Chiarelli said. “Good Counsel has done previous water testing, but to review our water source again was beneficial … continuing to monitor it is a priority,” she said.

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