A growing number of Northwest Indiana school districts have signed up for a free lead-in-water testing program, but several schools in communities with aging water systems appear to have missed a deadline to enroll.

The following districts operate schools listed as eligible but not participating in the Indiana Finance Authority's free, voluntary water-testing program, records show: The School City of Hammond; Aspire Charter Academy in Gary; Charter School of the Dunes in Gary; East Chicago and Gary Lighthouse Charter Schools; Steel City Academy in Gary; Thea Bowman Leadership Academy in Gary; LaPorte Community School Corp.; and Neighbors New Vistas High School in Portage. 

Administrators at many of the schools listed as not participating did not return a call seeking comment.

Some schools, including Valparaiso Community Schools and East Chicago Urban Enterprise Academy, did not participate in the IFA program because they recently conducted independent testing of drinking water, administrators said.

Exposure to lead poses serious health risks, particularly to young children and fetuses. Even at low doses, it can cause irreversible learning disabilities and health problems. 

Application deadline was last month

The Indiana Finance Authority issued a report in December 2016 that found the state's aging water infrastructure needs $2.3 billion in immediate repairs and $815 million a year in additional maintenance spending to protect human health.

Communities with aging infrastructure and structures built before June 1986, when lead was banned from use in drinking water systems, are more likely to have plumbing equipment that can corrode.  

The IFA launched the voluntary testing program for schools in February 2017 to ensure drinking water in public schools was safe. The enrollment deadline was Jan. 17, IFA spokeswoman Stephanie McFarland said.

Water systems in Hammond, East Chicago, Gary and the city of LaPorte all contain at least some lead or other materials that can corrode and leach lead into drinking water, according to records on file with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management and water department officials. 

Hammond, East Chicago and LaPorte operate their own water systems, and Gary and Portage are served by Indiana American Water.

Like many public water systems throughout the country, Hammond, East Chicago, LaPorte and Indiana American treat their water with chemicals to prevent corrosion of plumbing equipment.

Water systems also must test water to show lead levels are below allowable limits, but a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rule that mandates the testing has been criticized in recent years as inadequate to protect public health.

Tests have shown that lead levels in water in Hammond, LaPorte and Indiana American are below allowable limits.

East Chicago's lead levels also have been within allowable limits when tested under the EPA's Lead and Copper Rule, but EPA in 2016 found elevated lead levels at 18 homes while conducting a more robust type of water sampling during its investigation within the USS Lead Superfund site. Subsequent sampling by the city and IDEM have indicated the city remains in compliance with the Lead and Copper Rule.

Lead in water and soil at the Superfund site are not related, but residents of the area face cumulative exposure risks.

LaPorte has had a municipal water system since 1870, and more than 70 percent of the system's 8,100 service lines connections contain at least some lead. An estimated 1,000 lines are completely lead, said Todd Taylor, LaPorte Water Department superintendent.

Hammond does not have an estimate of how many of its 24,148 water service line connections might contain at least some lead, said Edward Krusa, executive director of the Hammond Water Department. No records were kept indicating what service line material was used.

School City of Hammond Chief Financial Officer Theo Boone said Wednesday the district did not participate in the state's free testing program.

"We will do some testing at our own expense," he said. "We are not just testing for lead but also for other contaminants. We did some tests about 10 years ago, and we are going to go back and take another look to make sure the drinking water is safe for everyone in our buildings."

The School City of Hammond is the largest school district in Northwest Indiana, with 13,150 students and 25 buildings, 24 of which are school buildings.

Schools happy with work so far

School administrators who have signed up for the testing said they're pleased with the IFA program, and that any necessary work has been done.

East Chicago schools Superintendent Paige McNulty said the water testing in district buildings has been completed. 

"We had one or two water fountains that were old and needed to be replaced, and we did that in September," McNulty said.

The East Chicago School Board voted in 2016 to close the old Carrie Gosch Elementary School because of health concerns related to the ongoing environmental cleanup at the USS Lead Superfund site. 

East Chicago and Gary schools also have had water fountains replaced as a result of settlements between the EPA and companies responsible for pollution unrelated to the schools.

Michigan City Area Schools spokeswoman Betsy Kohn said representatives from the Indiana Geological and Water Survey visited many of the district's buildings in mid-September — including Barker Middle School, Edgewood Elementary, Knapp Elementary, Joy Elementary, Krueger Middle School, Lake Hills Elementary, Marsh Elementary, Michigan City High School, Niemann Elementary, Ames Field, Mullen School, AK Smith Career Center and the administration building.

Representatives identified areas where there is potable water and designed a sampling plan. Samples were collected at all buildings in the district except Pine Elementary School.

"We expect to have final results completed for all buildings in the next couple of weeks — with the exception of Pine (Elementary), which will take a bit longer," she said.

Kohn said MCAS applied for the IFA's voluntary testing program shortly after it was announced.

"We felt it was important to be proactive in this area, to ensure the safety of our students and staff," she said.

In Michigan City, about 3,000 of the water system's 13,000 service line connections contain at least some lead, records show. 

In Whiting, where more than 76 percent of the city's 1,517 water service line connections contain at least some lead, the public school district has opted to participate in the IFA's program, Superintendent Cindy Scroggins said.

Manager enrolled Gary public schools

School City of Gary buildings overseen by emergency manager Peggy Hinckley recently enrolled in the IFA program. Hinckley, who was appointed by the state in August to take over the financially and academically strapped school district, along with a team of financial and academic experts from MGT Consulting Group, ordered the district to participate.

Hinckley said, "We are grateful to have access to free testing to ensure water sources are safe for our children."

Operations manager Ron Gordon said sampling has not yet been completed. "That should happen in the upcoming weeks," he said.

Administrators at the School City of Hobart and Griffith Public Schools said they recently signed up for the IFA program. 

School Town of Highland Superintendent Brian Smith said his district plans to participate, but had to wait until after a $30 million construction project is completed. Some of the work being done at the district's six schools involved plumbing.

"It was just best for us to wait until after our construction was done," Smith said.

Additional districts enrolled in the program include Crown Point Community Schools, Hanover Community School Corp., Lake Central School Corp., Lake Ridge Schools, Lake Station Community Schools, Merrillville Community School Corp., River Forest Community School Corp., School Town of Munster, Tri-Creek School Corp., Duneland School Corp., East Porter County School Corp., MSD of Boone Township in Hebron, Portage Township Schools and Union Township School Corp.