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Vermont Plans To Test Schools For Lead By June 2022, But Some Want State To Act Faster

Evan Chamberlin, 9, drinks from a water fountain at Union Elementary School in Montpelier.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
Evan Chamberlin, 9, drinks from a water fountain at Union Elementary School in Montpelier. Union Elementary was one of the few schools that voluntarily tested its water for lead following a state-sponsored pilot study.

Some lawmakers and environmental activists say a state plan that gives schools up to three-and-a-half-years to test their water for lead will put children at risk.Earlier this year the state finished up a pilot study to see if there was lead in the drinking water at Vermont schools.

The state went to 16 schools and discovered traces of lead in every school that was tested. At five of the schools, there was enough lead in the water to require immediate action.

Following the pilot study’s release in September, the state recommended that schools move ahead with their own testing programs, but so far only two school districts have worked with the Department of Health to carry out the tests.

The state quietly released its proposal for testing all of the schools in Vermont on the Friday before Christmas.

The plan, which was put together by the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, the Department of Health and the Agency of Education, lays out a schedule to begin the testing in any school that has a kindergarten program.

The state hopes to have those tests wrapped up before June 2021. The rest of the schools have until June 2022 to complete their testing for lead in the water.

Jen Duggan, the director of Conservation Law Foundation Vermont, said the state did not provide any science in its report to back up its decision to give schools so long to complete the testing.

“Vermont is way behind already in terms of requiring mandatory testing in schools for lead,” Duggan said. “And it’s just not acceptable to ... allow three more years to get this testing done.”

When the state announced the results from the pilot study back in the fall, the Montpelier-Roxbury School District decided to pay for its own testing.

“I have a strong belief system that we can’t fix things unless we know about them,” said superintendent Libby Bonesteel. “And we want to make the best, safest environment for our kids here. So if we have lead in our water, we need to know about that.”

At Union Elementary School, a member of the Montpelier-Roxbury district, there were traces of lead found when the school tested water, although it was below the EPA "action level."

Andrew LaRosa stands in a school hallway, looking at the camera.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Andrew LaRosa is director of facilities at the Montpelier-Roxbury schools. LaRosa tested the water at the district's four buildings following the release of the state's pilot study.

Since the pilot report came out in September, clean water and public health advocates have been waiting for the Scott administration to come up with a plan for the rest of Vermont’s schools.

Neighboring states New Hampshire and Massachusetts require all public schools to test their water for lead. But Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Emily Boedecker said Vermont is not yet ready to force schools to test their water.

“So right now we are saying you should. That’s an important thing. We believe that all schools should be tested,” Boedecker said. “And there is absolutely an opportunity for schools to come in as early as they can work it into their work plan, and the dates that we have are the outlier dates by which we will have been chasing and working with all schools."

Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe said he’ll start early in the upcoming legislative session to get a more aggressive testing schedule in place.

“I don’t want parents to think their kids are going to spend the next possibly three years at an elementary school drinking lead-contaminated water,” Ashe said.

"I don't want parents to think their kids are going to spend the next possibly three years at an elementary school drinking lead-contaminated water." — Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe

Ashe said the Scott administration’s plan to give schools three-and-a-half years to test would likely lead to a public health divide, with richer districts having the resources to test their water, while the poorer districts push the testing off as long as possible.

“We have a view in the state of Vermont that every kid deserves an equal education,” Ashe said. “We know that lead, especially in the case of children, can actually prevent the development of the young brain and their bodies — and so just like we have a commitment to equal education, we have to create an equal environment for these kids to learn in.”

Bennington County Sen. Brian Campion said he’ll introduce a bill that lowers the safety threshold from 15 parts per billion — which is the EPA "action level" which the state uses — to one part per billion.

“I don’t know how they got to 15 parts per billion,” Campion said. “But again, the American Academy of Pediatrics and others are saying, you know, there’s no good level of lead that kids should be drinking. And if it’s going to take legislative action to move that number to get it to one part per billion, I think that’s what makes sense.”

Under the state’s proposed plan the water testing must happen during the school year. The schools will be asked to collect the water samples and then inform parents when the results are available.

The state also says school districts will be responsible to remediate or remove any fixtures that are leaching lead into the water.

"We can't impose something on schools that they're not prepared to comply with. This is a complex program. ... I just want it to be done right, and I want all Vermont kids to benefit from it and be protected." — Mark Levine, Department of Health commissioner

Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine said for some districts the process will be a heavy lift, and he defended the state’s three-and-half-year timeline.

“We can’t impose something on schools that they’re not prepared to comply with,” said Levine. “This is a complex program. And there are many taps in each school. Each tap has to be tested multiple times, then depending on the findings there has to be re-testing. So I just want it to be done right, and I want all Vermont kids to benefit from it and be protected.”

The Department of Environmental Conservation is putting together a database to both handle all of the information that will be gathered and make it easy for people to track how their schools are doing.

The state also says it’s applying for federal funding to help pay for the testing program.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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