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Mother sues Pennsylvania school district over lead-tainted water

By Jonathan Allen

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A mother has sued a Pennsylvania school district for a delay in telling parents that the water at her daughter's school was contaminated with toxic levels of lead, according to a complaint filed in U.S. federal court on Wednesday.

The Butler Area School District told parents in a letter on Jan. 20 that test results, which they acknowledged receiving five months earlier, had found leads levels at Summit Elementary School "exceeding acceptable water standards."

Jennifer Tait, whose daughter attends the school, says officials should have said something as soon as the test results came through last August, according to her lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh.

Despite lead abatement efforts beginning in the 20th century, when lead was once commonly used in pipes and paint, communities across the United States continue to be exposed to dangerous levels of the metal. Lead poisoning can permanently stunt a child's intelligence and development.

The issue came to the fore again in 2015 after state officials in Michigan acknowledged that the water supply in the city of Flint had been contaminated by lead.

In her lawsuit, Tait accuses school district officials in Butler of a "gross delay" in notifying parents, saying her daughter and other students routinely drank water tainted with toxic levels of lead for the five months between when the school district's received the test results and when it sent out the letter.

The district officials' actions in effect created "a school full of poisonous drinking water," the lawsuit said. Tait is seeking damages for negligence, among other charges, and is asking the court to allow others at the school to join in the lawsuit.

William Pettigrew, the school district's acting superintendent, referred questions about the lawsuit to the district's lawyer, who did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Pettigrew said he took over after Dale Lumley, who is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, resigned and retired on Sunday. Lumley could not immediately be reached for comment.

In an earlier statement, Lumley said a school maintenance official failed to share the worrying test results with him or the district's board until Jan. 19, the day before he sent out the letter to parents and sought out a supply of bottled water for students.

The district's director of maintenance also resigned this week, Pettigrew said.

"The school is closed under my recommendation," Pettigrew said. The children are now being taught in a vacant school building nearby, he said.

The school's water was found to contain lead at levels nearly four times higher than federal limits, with one sample measured at 55 parts per billion, according to the Jan. 20 letter, which is posted on the district's website.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Bill Rigby and Leslie Adler)