Colgate’s Lead Testing Response is a Failure in Transparency

Caio Brighenti, Maroon-News Staff

Despite the constant barrage of emails with testing results, a dedicated page on Colgate’s website and a comprehensive “Frequently Asked Questions” section, the university’s handling of the lead contamination situation has been a severe failure in transparency.

To be fair, the administration has done many things right. The speed with which apartments were outfitted with filters and alternative water sources was impressive. Campus-wide communications updating students on the action process and the decision to make testing results openly available both show a commitment to transparency. This commitment, however, seems outweighed by a desire to avoid making the university look bad and admit responsibility.

I’m not an expert in drinking water quality. I don’t know much about the university’s decision-making process. I am, however, a concerned student who’s read every single communication from the university and village on this issue. What I’ve found is a refusal to address the fundamental issue at stake: how long has this been a problem?

If the FAQ was an honest assessment of the most common questions asked by students, then “how long has our water been contaminated?” would be at the top of the list. It’s a fair question to ask, when some of us have been living down-the-hill for years and when the university has admitted that the lead levels were only discovered by chance after a chemistry student tested the water in their building for a class project. 

I imagined there’d be a clear answer to this question, delineating the university’s water testing schedule and clarifying when the latest tests were collected. The FAQ hints that this might be the case, saying “Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) regularly tests the campus water system for certain contaminants.” But, if that’s the case, how exactly was this left to be discovered by a student and not EHS? When were the last tests conducted and how long would we have continued to drink contaminated water if it was not for this student?

At first glance, the next question on the FAQ—”How often does the University test water on campus?”—seems to provide an answer: the Village of Hamilton’s 2018 Annual Drinking Water Quality Report, which reported a result of 5ppb, well under EPA actionable levels. It’s puzzling, however, that the village’s water report is cited here when a blog post on the village’s official website following the discovery of elevated water levels on Broad Street insinuates problems with the water supply in Colgate buildings that has no implications for the Village’s water supply. In fact, a later blog post directly states only three university buildings are tested by the village. 

Again, I’m not an expert on any of this. But as a concerned student reading the only information available to me, I can only make one conclusion: the elevated lead levels are due to issues in Colgate’s water system and not the village’s water supply. If that’s the case, then it’s completely disingenuous to cite the Village’s Water Quality Report in an effort to show our water has only recently been affected. 

It’s completely unacceptable that the university has not clarified exactly when water testing last occurred in each residential building, and when it would have occurred next. It’s impossible to have faith in our institution’s handling of this situation when a careful reading of communication material suggests an uncomfortable detail is being conveniently omitted: we might have been exposed for far longer than the university is making it seem.