By Jim Therrien, Bennington Banner
BENNINGTON — After a pilot program found elevated levels of lead in water at five Vermont schools, state officials are planning for testing at all public schools by 2022.
Lawmakers including Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, and Senate President pro tem Tim Ashe agree with that goal, but consider the situation more urgent. They are calling for testing and remediation of lead issues at all schools over the coming year — with both testing and any needed remediation work to be funded at least partially by the state.
The senators also said they favor a much lower threshold requiring action on lead than the current federal and state standard of 15 parts per billion in drinking water.
Campion, who has drafted legislation detailing a more aggressive approach to removing lead from school water taps, noted that Vermont has a health advisory level of 1 part per billion, which is consistent with the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation for school water sources.
No level of lead is considered safe, Campion said, and he is proposing that the level requiring action be set at 1 part per billion.
According to the state pilot testing report, even low blood lead levels in a child's body can slow growth, make it difficult to learn, and cause behavior problems, with children under 6 years old considered especially susceptible to the effects of lead.
"My colleague Brian Campion first brought this issue to my attention, and now a number of us are committed to funding testing throughout the state," Ashe said in a recent Facebook post. "We'll figure out where the money will come from when the Senate is in session (testing is very inexpensive), but the most important thing is that we get it done."
On Friday, the Department of Environmental Conservation released a draft plan that calls for following up ona September reportwith the results of the pilot testing at 16 schools chosen from around Vermont. At least one water tap at five schools was found to have lead at or above the 15 parts per billion level, requiring action.
Lead can dissolve into drinking water through contact with older lead piping, plumbing fixtures or older solder containing lead. The public systems providing water to Vermont's approximately 400 schools are tested for lead and other possible contaminants, but the pilot testing targeted water coming directly from individual taps at the 16 schools.
In the pilot testing, water from nearly 900 taps was tested and lead greater than 1 part per billion was detected in at least three taps at all of the schools, while elevated levels of 15 parts per billion or higher was found in one or more taps at five of the 16 schools.
The latter taps were removed from service while remediation options were considered.
DEC Commissioner Emily Boedecker said Monday that some details of the Scott administration's proposal are still being worked out, but the plan calls for testing each school tap used for water consumption or cooking by 2022.
Testing would begin in January with the goal of completing initial sampling of all schools serving kindergarten students by June 1, 2021. Those schools without kindergarten would be tested in a second phase, to be completed by June 1, 2022.
The deadlines are for collection and submission of samples only. Results would be analyzed by the Vermont Department of Health laboratory, and the draft plan calls for retesting all schools every five years until three consecutive samples are found to be below the 15 parts per billion action level.
As an example of the complexity of the process, Boedecker said there will be "thousands" of samples from individual taps, given the number of taps from more than 400 schools, and with samples taken both before and after a faucet is allowed to flush out standing water.
Those taps with an elevated level of lead would also require retesting, either to confirm the result or to assess remediation efforts.
Just shipping all that water to the DPH laboratory will require planning and coordination, Boedecker said, and the state is considering a courier system to facilitate the process for schools.
"If water is at the action level, schools will be required to do remediation," the commissioner said, adding that "one good thing that came from the pilot" was that remediation costs "typically required a low investment" to eliminate lead from a faucet, drinking fountain or other water tap.
The pilot testing report said the costs to remove lead sources from a tap at from $100 to $500. Schools also would have the option of discontinuing use of a tap or removing it.
Boedecker said the schools would be responsible for those remediation costs, but there likely will be more discussion of what the state can provide in terms of funding for "those schools that require more serious remediation" and incur significant costs.
Schools also would be responsible for notifying the community of the initial water sampling results, and will be required to submit a compliance certification statement to the state attesting to implementation of the program and completion of mitigating actions.
The DEC, which is working with the Department of Health and Agency of Education on the testing program, also will provide technical assistance to schools on lead remediating issues. The Health Department will assist schools with water sampling plans.
Greater urgency seen
"I am pleased they are willing to move on this," Campion said Saturday, referring to the Scott administration's proposal.
But he and other lawmakers believe the timetable should be significantly stepped up and that the state should cover the cost to test all Vermont schools next year and also cover the costs of required remediation.
"I think we need to do this much sooner," he said, adding that testing should be done annually for at least the first years of the program.
"I want to make sure every water source is tested."
In addition, he said the 15 parts per billion standard for lead is being reviewed by some other states as too high and should be lowered in Vermont as well.
"Ultimately, the goal is to have no lead in water, but this is not something we can jump to right away," Boedecker said.
But with the new program, she said, the administration seeks "to get a handle" on the specific problem of lead in school water taps.
One issue with lowering the action level, she said, is that there could be an effect on lead level requirements for the approximately 1,400 public water systems in the state and significant costs associated with bringing about compliance with a new standard.
Campion also proposes requiring testing for child care centers, which now are only tested when a license for the center is sought or renewed.
"Some have very old infrastructure," he said.
Campion said he and Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, and others expected to sponsor legislation next session to cover a state testing program for lead.
"I do plan to co-sponsor the bill, which would require all schools and child care facilities in Vermont to test drinking water outlets at the school or facility for lead contamination," Sears said Sunday. "The dangers from lead, particularly for youngsters, have been well documented."
Ashe said he also has questions about the pace of the administration's program and about funding issues.
He said the pilot testing report and the concerns of colleagues helped convince him this fall that "testing should be statewide" and that it "should be done within the next year."
"The situation is not a good one," as described in the pilot testing report, he said.
As for those costs and any required remediation work, he said, "I would hope we could support schools, at least during the first phase of this. I think people have a right to know we are getting lead out of our schools."
One of the first steps, he said, would be to compile an estimate of the extent of the problem and of the costs of testing and remediation statewide.
The Senate president said he believes the overall costs will be considerable but not overwhelming, and it is likely funding can be found within the state budget for testing and/or remediation funding, and that the state could look to the capital budget if necessary to fund plumbing or other remediation work.
"I'm encouraged that Brian [Campion] is moving forward on this," he said.
Ashe said he looks forward to hearing from officials from the three state agencies involved in the program and others during legislative hearings, adding, "I'm happy to let the legislative process play out."
Another goal in the DEC testing proposal is to set up a "publicly accessible data management system" where testing information will be posted.
In the pilot testing among Southern Vermont schools, 75 water samples were taken from a total of 40 taps at Bennington Elementary School. Of those, 71 samples were at or less than 1 ppb of lead, while four samples were greater than 1 ppb but less than 15 ppb.
At the Academy School in Brattleboro, 82 water samples were taken from 49 taps. Of those, 61 samples were at or below 1 ppb, 20 were between 1 ppb and 15 ppb, while one sample was above 15 ppb.
When the taps were flushed out before a separate sampling, all 36 samples from Benn El taps and all 33 taken from Academy School taps had 1 ppb or less of lead.
Ashe said there also has been discussion of requirements for testing for radon gas in Vermont schools, where the focus is less on students and more on the possible effects on employees who work there over many years.
Radon is a radioactive gas that has been found in buildings all over the United States. It comes from the natural breakdown of uranium in soil and rock. Radon moves up through the ground and enters buildings through cracks or gaps in foundations.
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien