Updated: 4:49 p.m.
Minnesota prison officials say preliminary results from a new round of testing show the water at the Stillwater correctional facility is safe to drink — but testing at a different state prison, in Lino Lakes, found lead in some of the water there.
The safety of drinking water was among the concerns raised during protests earlier this month by people incarcerated at the Stillwater prison, their families and advocates. Those advocates continue to call for independent water testing.
In an update sent late Tuesday, the Minnesota Department of Corrections announced it’s launching a new initiative to monitor and manage drinking water at its facilities.
“Safe water is essential to the health and well-being of our staff and people we serve,” DOC Commissioner Paul Schnell said in the news release. “We are prioritizing the development and implementation of comprehensive water management plans for all Department of Corrections’ facilities.”
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The DOC reported that lead was found in water samples from three faucets at the Lino Lakes correctional facility, and that bottled water was being brought in for inmates and staff until further testing is completed.
The taps that tested positive for lead were in bathrooms in programming buildings, the agency said, and not in living areas.
“While the level of lead found in the samples is below the level that would indicate an immediate health concern, health officials say consumption of lead at any level should be avoided,” the DOC reported.
At the prison in Stillwater, the DOC said Minnesota Department of Health staff tested 81 faucets in living areas, kitchen facilities and programming and staff areas.
“While MDH is completing its work and is expected to provide a report to DOC later this week, preliminary results have not found any immediate risk associated with the facility’s drinking water,” the DOC reported.
Schnell told MPR News he views this as an infrastructure issue.
“These buildings are very old. And at the end of the day, we have a lot of people who live in them and work in them,” he said.
“The issues that were raised, really prompt us to say, let's come up with a comprehensive strategy to make sure that the water is clear and safe. The testing was certainly one element of that. But what's the longer-term strategy? And that's what this water management planning is all about.”
But advocates for those who are incarcerated at Stillwater are still raising questions. David Boehnke is an organizer with the Home for Good Coalition.
“We have decades of concerns and people who’ve suffered and are suffering real health consequences from the water at Stillwater,” he said. He believes the DOC is “using very sneaky language” in its updates on water testing.
Boehnke would also like to see Commissioner Schnell and the governor engage in more community conversations to find solutions, as well as see independent testing of the water quality.
In Schnell’s view, the concerns raised by community advocates, incarcerated people and staff have been “acted upon.”
“I think we have done exactly what people have asked,” Schnell said, referencing the investigation into water quality and other living conditions such as air conditioning. He hopes to bring the concerns before the legislature.
In Tuesday’s news release, he said he has directed department staff to:
develop a water testing protocol for all correctional facilities within 45 days
hire a qualified contractor within a month to develop water management plans for all facilities, starting with Stillwater and Lino Lakes
post water quality information on the DOC’s public website
create and hire an industrial hygienist position at the department “to give exclusive focus to water, air and other environmental health concerns.”