How much lead is safe for children anyway?
I’ve been involved with the Courier for seven long years now. I started in the fall of 2013 as a random student who stumbled into JNL216 out of curiosity and ended up finding my calling. I left the Courier as Editor-in-Chief at the end of 2017.
In the years since then, I’ve kept in touch with the instructor and many of the Courier’s editors, always willing to offer advice or help out where I could. When I heard about what was happening with the Courier, I decided to sign-up for the lab one last time to help out remotely.
I’ve interviewed or personally interacted on behalf of the Courier with three Chemeketa presidents, a sitting U.S. Senator, multiple Board of Education members, numerous vice presidents of this or that, legions of deans and executive deans, and more faculty, staff, and students than I could ever hope to remember.
I know that my experience as a student has been atypical.
But it’s because of this unique experience, and the unique perspective that it affords me, that I have to write this open letter to our community. I’ve seen things that I cannot stay quiet about any longer.
“We are a college community enriched by the diversity of our students, staff, and community members. Each individual and group has the potential to contribute in our learning environment. Each has dignity. To diminish the dignity of one is to diminish the dignity of us all.”
That’s what’s displayed prominently on a wall inside Bldg. 2 at Chemeketa. I used to walk by it all the time on my way to our classroom, back in the days when we had a classroom of our own.
It’s a beautiful sentiment, but in practice, it’s a hard one to live up to.
We journalism students at Chemeketa have felt like an exception to these words for a long time now.
Forget your preconceived notions of reporters always looking for the next big scoop for the sake of another notch on our belts like it’s some sort of competition. Ethics and a sense of duty have always been my guide. I wasn’t looking for dirt on the college. I started working on a story that should have been mundane and ended up nearly breaking the Courier.
The story was about the lead testing that the college had done on the water at the Salem campus during the summer of 2016. Most of the results were good. Out of the entire Salem campus, there were only a handful of results that were above the Environmental Protection Agency’s Action Level guidelines, and college officials were quick to shut down and remediate the affected faucets and fountains.
However, there were also a few results that fell below the EPA’s Action Level guidelines but were still above zero.
One of these results was the kitchen sink in Bldg. 39, the Child Development Center.
Yeah. The daycare.
Here’s the lab report. It’s only referred to here as Location #1, with Bldg. 39 penciled in after, but I’ll prove this report is about the kitchen sink in a moment.bldg39-kf
Let me be clear here. The level of lead detected in that sink was low. The EPA Action Level guideline was 0.015 mg/l (15 parts per billion), and the amount detected was 0.0024 mg/l (2.4 ppb). Now, I understand that it isn’t always possible to remediate down to zero. I also understand that the college was well within the letter of the law, and I am not insinuating otherwise.
But this wasn’t some rarely used backroom faucet. This was the kitchen sink in the daycare. If there was any location you’d think they’d care to do more than the absolute bare minimum required by law, this would be it.
The fact of the matter is that there is no such thing as a safe level of lead exposure. Period. No exceptions. The lab report itself even makes this crystal clear. It’s also a well-documented fact that young children are especially vulnerable to lead. I brought all of this to the attention of several administration officials, including members of the executive team.
The first entry on this document, Salem campus Bldg. 39 KF, is the kitchen sink of the daycare. At the end of the document, you’ll find confirmation that KF stands for Kitchen Faucet. You’ll also notice that the document shows three test results for this location, along with other relevant information such as dates and times for the samples being taken. You can find the report on Chemeketa’s website here.
With this document fresh in mind, let’s lay out the timeline of events here. Samples were first taken and passed on to the lab on June 14, 2016. The lab results showing 2.4 ppb of lead in the water at the daycare kitchen sink were sent back to Chemeketa on June 22, 2016. I first asked about it on September 28, 2016.
Three months passed: July, August, September. They knew about it for three months before that interview.
On September 28, 2016, I asked the highest-ranking administration official involved what plans were in place to remediate that sink, as any good reporter would. The question seemed to catch him off-guard. He told me something to the effect of 2.4 ppb was well below the EPA’s Action Level guidelines, so there was no need for the college to have taken further action, and he wasn’t aware of any plans to do so. But despite telling me this the day before, the first retest of the daycare kitchen sink took place on September 29, 2016.
Now, maybe that was just a coincidence. Maybe they were planning to take further action all along and he just forgot. Maybe they just happened to not get around to it for three months, despite children being back in the building at this point, until the day after I started asking questions. Or maybe, just maybe, the administrators involved realized how indefensible their inaction was and they were now scrambling to cover their tracks.
When I started looking into this, I thought it would be a simple, boring story about the college conducting some maintenance during the summer. I’d planned to report the results, notify the public about the remediation efforts, and get the people involved on the record patting themselves on the back for a job well done. I thought the college would have been on top of this, fixing any problems and sparing no expense to keep kids safe. That was the Chemeketa I thought I knew.
Turns out I knew nothing about Chemeketa.
My time at this college can be divided into two distinct parts: before I asked about that sink, and after.
Before, I’d had nothing but good experiences, even when covering sensitive stories. There was mutual trust and respect between Courier reporters and members of the administration. They understood that we weren’t their enemy. They understood that we cared about this college just as much as they did.
But after I started looking into this?
College officials began to treat Courier reporters like myself as lepers. Not every official, but enough. Some seemed to view me as an enemy combatant rather than a student. I felt that some tried to intimidate me. I felt that some tried to stonewall me. I felt that some tried to convince me I couldn’t possibly understand any of this and had no business covering it. I believe that these tactics were part of an effort to make sure this story never saw the light of day.
There are things I’d like to share here, but I can’t prove them. So instead I’ll say this: I strongly believe that if the story had run, they would have fired our instructor in direct retaliation, and ended the JNL courses and the Courier.
So how did this story end? I kept asking questions until they finally fixed it. I believe that I forced them to fix that sink. I believe that these officials had no plans to do anything. I believe that without the Courier’s intervention, they would have continued to do nothing, just as they had done nothing for months before I started asking questions.
I was told via email on December 20, 2016, that work had been completed on Bldg. 39, and that the test results now came back as no detection. I was glad for the sake of the kids, but it felt like a hollow victory. I couldn’t even bring myself to respond. I may have won the war, but the battles left their mark on me.
The truth is they broke me. There’s really no other way to describe it.
I failed. I never wrote the story. I failed in my ethical and moral obligations to you, our community. I allowed the fear of retaliation to prevent me from fulfilling my duties as a reporter. I’m ashamed of myself, and it’s a mistake I will never make again.
“To diminish the dignity of one is to diminish the dignity of us all.”
Pretty words, but nothing more.
The hypocrisy is sickening. I felt like these administrators used their power to run circles around me, knowing full well that as a student, and in the Courier’s diminished state, I could do nothing about it. I believe that broke me down to prevent a public relations nightmare of their own making.
To the good people in our community who are reading this right now, let me ask you something.
Is this what the student experience at Chemeketa should be like?
Is there some exception to those pretty words painted on the Bldg. 2 wall where it’s actually OK to diminish the dignity of a student, but only if they’re reporting on something you don’t want anyone to find out about?
Is this the Chemeketa that you know? Is this the Chemeketa that you want to be a part of?
With journalism courses no longer being offered at Chemeketa and control of the Courier handed over to Student Life, under the watchful gaze of administrators with a vested interest in making sure that no story like this ever comes to light again, I’m left to wonder: who will be there to force them to fix the next sink in the daycare?
Reporter – Fall 2013 – Winter 2014,
Editor – Spring 2014,
News Editor – Fall 2014 – Spring 2015,
Editor-in-Chief of the Courier Brief – Fall 2015 – Spring 2016,
Editor-in-Chief of the revived Courier – Fall 2016 – Fall 2017,
Former Editor-in-Chief who was always just a phone call away – Winter 2017 – Spring 2020,
And finally, Editor-of-I’m-Getting-too-Old-for-this – Fall 2020,