Facing a water quality problem in public schools, state should ward against being led astray
| April 24, 2022 12:00 AM
As far as the EPA is concerned, there is no safe level of lead in drinking water. And for good reason.
The toxic metal poses a health risk at even low levels and can accumulate in the body over time. Children are more vulnerable — it takes less lead to do more damage in their growing bodies. The list of possible consequences from exposure is long and dire: damage to the nervous system, learning disabilities, and impaired hearing and blood functions.
Montanans were rightly shocked to learn that some level of lead was found in the water of many public schools across the state. A new statewide rule requiring schools to regularly check fixtures used for drinking water or food prep exposed the problem.
Not all schools had tested for lead by the state’s December 2021 deadline. But, of those that submitted samples, about half found what the state deemed high lead levels — a concentration of above 5 parts per billion.
This is good information, if troubling. Local school officials can begin remediation efforts. The problem, as per usual, is how to pay for it.
At a hearing last week of the state’s Infrastructure Advisory Commission, the body tasked with reviewing water and sewer projects for American Rescue Plan Act funding, officials reported that fixes run from a $25 filter to a $500,000 — or more — plumbing replacement project. As was noted, lead potentially enters water systems from a variety of sources, so there is no one-size-fits-all approach.
Officials with the Department of Environmental Quality highlighted financing available to local school districts. They include federal funding for sampling, the state’s major maintenance aid fund, loans and grants through the Department of Agriculture, Community Block Development Grant dollars, low interest loans, ESSER funds and leftover Covid-19 relief dollars. The Office of Public Instruction also offers an up to $1,000 reimbursement for lead remediation.
But will that mix of dollars be enough? What other priorities will school districts set aside while budgeting for grant matches and interest payments or ignore when grant application writing season rolls around? And how many of us have watched as a much-needed local project got sidelined when a grant failed to materialize?
State Rep. Jim Keane, a Democrat from Butte, sought to cut through all that by putting a motion before the advisory commission on Wednesday to send $10 million in ARPA dollars toward the problem. The money would come from previously approved projects that failed to materialize, so as to avoid pitting schools against other necessary improvements.
It was voted down. Opponents, calling the motion premature, pointed out that more than 100 schools had yet to report findings. Concerns were raised about local officials potentially testing sinks used for janitorial work. At least one member pointed out that many of the adults in the room grew up drinking water in local public schools – what effect, if any, did it have on them?
More information is always better, so we can’t take issue with wanting to gather data. After all, fixing this problem might cost more than $10 million.
But we agree with the spirit of Keane’s motion. As he pointed out, “that is what this committee is about, infrastructure.”
This is a problem that needs rectifying, immediately, and it comes at a time when the state is flush with federal dollars. Yes, the commission should gather the data and analyze the problem, but with an eye to a solution and possibly sending help to local school districts.
These are our children. We send them to school to learn, grow and mature in an as safe and healthy environment as possible. And lead, at any level, threatens that.