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West Philly High School's water safety in doubt

The water at West Philadelphia High School has been discolored for weeks, and students and staff should not drink it, officials said.

The problem was discovered Nov. 17, when water began running a yellowish brown in some sources at the school at 49th and Chestnut. The Philadelphia Water Department and Philadelphia School District have been attempting to diagnose and fix the issue since then, but have been unable to pinpoint the exact cause.

Tests have showed high levels of iron and sediment in the water at West. Officials said that the water's chlorine levels are still high enough to prevent contamination of the water, so it is still technically safe, but they are keeping staff and students from drinking it as a precaution.

They said they believe the problem is coming into the building from outside the school.

Since reports of discolored water surfaced, the school system has been providing bottled water - roughly 15 cases a day - for students and staff to drink.
District and Water Department workers shut off the school's water after staff reported the problem; it has since been turned back on, and is being frequently tested, monitored and flushed, said H. Lee Whack Jr., a schools spokesman.

And while those at the school may not drink the water and cafeteria workers have been unable to cook with it, officials have said it is safe for hand washing, and as of Monday, the City Health Department has cleared school workers to begin using it for food preparation again.

"The district has also been communicating with parents, teachers, and the principal about the school's water, and both the district and the Water Department are working together to resolve this issue as soon as possible," Whack said in a joint statement with the Water Department.

Officials said it was unclear how much longer it would take to diagnose the precise problem, fix it and allow West students and staff to drink their school's water again.

"Everyone has been working overtime on this," said Kevin Geary, another schools spokesman. "This is not for lack of knowledge or lack of effort."

West is a new building, opened in 2011. The water main that feeds it was installed in 1901.

No reports of water problems have been reported in the houses or businesses adjacent to the school.

At least one official is not pleased with situation.

"We need to get to the bottom of this," said state Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Phila.) "It shouldn't take this long to figure out what the problem is. Why has this not been fixed yet?"

Hughes, a city schools advocate, has been paying attention to the district's facilities issues. School-system officials recently said they need $5 billion to fix all the problems with their 200-plus buildings, many of which are very old.

"This sheds another kind of light on what we have to do to make sure that we invest in our school infrastructure, and protect it," Hughes said. "This is a brand-new building. Imagine the circumstances that potentially arise in other, older schools."

West junior Niya Wise said students' main issue has been with the food they've been served since the water problems began. Meals have been made off-site and brought in, Wise said, but they're just not appetizing.

"Sometimes, they're cold to the point they're frozen," said Wise, 16. "And sometimes, they look kind of like canned cat food."

Wise said that she understands school and city officials are working hard to diagnose and fix the problem.

"Everyone's doing a pretty good job, but I would still like to use the water," she said. "We should have safe drinking water."

A West staffer agreed that students' main concern has been the quality - and amount - of food they've been served. Some have complained that their drinking water is being rationed, though. Teachers get bottles to give to thirsty students, but they can't dispense whole bottles of water. Instead, they pour the bottled water into cups for students.

"The kids get upset, and rightfully so, about having limited amounts of water to drink," said the staffer, who asked that her name be withheld for fear of retribution.

The staffer said the district is working diligently on the problem, but she's still concerned.

"I went to wash my hands the other day, and it was really brown," the staffer said. "I said, 'I'm not washing my hands in this.' They said it's iron, but I'm not sticking my hands in that."

The school is providing hand sanitizer outside of bathrooms, Wise said. She said she also gets her own full bottle of water at lunch.