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UM retests water after elevated levels found in hall

Test results show one building on the University of Montana campus has elevated levels of lead -- in fact, it’s twice the EPA’s action level.

Federal health standards require the university test its water for copper and lead every three years and then post the results. Those tests were conducted on 30 buildings in August, and the results can be found here.

“Our system passed, because the system is based on the 90th percentile. Our system passed, but we did have two buildings that had elevated levels,” said Paul Trumbley, associate director of engineering and utilities.

Those two buildings were Skaggs and North Corbin Hall, so facility services retested them. The second time around Skaggs came back under the limit, but North Corbin was still elevated. That’s why campus facility services personnel were back in North Corbin Wednesday morning gathering new water samples.

North Corbin Hall’s test showed 0.030 mg/L for lead. The Environmental Protection Agency set the action level for lead in drinking water at 0.015 mg/L.

Most offices in North Corbin Hall have sinks in them because the building used to be a dorm, but many employees who work in the offices said they’ve always known the water wasn’t quite right.

The Rural Institute for Inclusive Communities and the MSU college of nursing use office space in the building.

"We've known for a long time that there has been lead in the water, and some people choose not to drink it," said Catherine Ipsen, who has an office on the second floor in North Corbin.

"The taste of the water isn't the greatest, and sometimes the water has kind of an ammonia-type, bleach-type smell to it," said Annie Burgad, who works in Brantly Hall, which is connected to North Corbin.

Many employees said their departments end up buying bottled water or use a purifier. One person said the water gives anyone who drinks it headaches.

Stephanie Mansfield has an office on the lower level of the building. She said she purifies her water before drinking it, but she didn’t know elevated levels of lead were found.

"I got an email that said there were 30 buildings that were tested on campus and that it came back fine. So that's kind of surprising to me, because I thought everything was OK," said Mansfield.

Campus officials explained that even though one building did not pass, the system as a whole was found to be safe.

Wednesday’s tests were taken from four different spots throughout the building to try to figure out if the problem is in the faucet or something farther back in the distribution piping. Trumbley explained that some older faucets or other parts of the fixture are made out of brass that can contain lead, but it could also be in the soldering in the pipes, which was commonly used until 1986.

"We're just digging into it a little more so we can hopefully uncover the issue and then come up with a plan to address it," said Trumbley.

"I was surprised that Corbin's was worse than Brantly's. But not surprising that there are traces of things -- they're old buildings," said Burgad.

North Corbin is a building that’s sandwiched between Brantly Hall and Corbin, and though they’re all connected, they were built at different times when construction methods were different.

The sign out front says Corbin was erected between 1927 and 1956, but it doesn’t specify when North Corbin was built.

Trumbley hopes to get the results from the most recent tests back next week.

"I certainly hope it comes back better. Makes me want to check the warning label on my filter," said Mansfield.

Lead can cause serious health problems if it’s ingested. It can damage the brain and kidneys and can interfere with the production of red blood cells.


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