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Vt. Lawmakers Disagree On Lead Test Standards, Statewide School Water Testing On Hold

People sit around the table during a Vermont House Appropriations Committee discussion.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
The House Appropriations Committee discusses a bill that would require all Vermont schools and childcare centers to test their water for lead.

Lawmakers were hoping to begin testing the water at Vermont schools and daycare centers for lead this academic year. But as lawmakers are having a tough time deciding what level of lead triggers remediation and how much state money to put toward the work, it looks unlikely testing can start before school lets out in June.

Any amount of lead is dangerous, especially for young children whose bodies and brains are developing. Testing has to happen while schools are open to get a good reading on how the water sits and moves through the plumbing while the buildings are in use.

When the Vermont Health Department did a pilot study last year, it tested the water at 16 schools. The water at each of those schools had traces of lead, and five of the schools had levels high enough to require immediate action.

Bennington County Sen. Brian Campion introduced a bill early in the session to set up a water testing protocol for every school and daycare center in the state. The Senate ultimately passed a bill that said any school that has lead levels above three parts per billion would have to switch out the pipes or fixtures to remove the lead from the water.

Now the bill is in the House, and that chamber's version sets the remediation level for lead at five parts per billion.

Campion said that is too high for triggering the water system upgrades: “In my opinion the House is putting children at greater risk by increasing the parts per billion to five,” the senator said.

In Campion’s original bill the action level was actually set at one part per billion, but he said the Senate Education Committee settled on three parts per billion.

If the House now votes to move the level up to five parts per billion, Campion said there will be some tough discussions in the conference committee.

“We’re talking about children’s health,” Campion said. “But also of course we’re talking about the faculty and staff and others that are working at our schools. This is a real, real public health issue.”

Shelburne Rep. Kate Webb, chair of the House Education Committee, said everyone wants Vermont schools to have clean water. Webb said the current EPA action level for lead — 15 parts per billion — is way too high.

The House Education Committee considered what it would cost if the action level was set at three parts per billion, and decided in the end to increase what the Senate allowed in its version of the bill.

“It made more money available for remediation,” Webb said. “And the good news about the remediation is once you replace those faucets, you can get it below one [part per billion]. So our interest was in moving as many of our drinking and cooking facilities to below one [part per billion].”

The House bill also gives schools until Dec. 31, 2020 to complete testing.

Conservation Law Foundation Director Jen Duggan has been following the bill through the Legislature. Duggan said it makes no sense to pass a law that tries to protect students and staff, while allowing elevated of levels of lead to be consumed on a daily basis inside the schools.

In a written statement, Duggan said:

“We are frustrated with the slow pace of action in the House, and the amendments to weaken the action level. There is widespread consensus among the medical community that there is no safe level of lead and even very low levels of lead in the blood can cause permanent and irreversible health impacts for children. The costs of lead exposure to the individuals and families impacted and to society far outweigh the costs of lead testing and remediation.”

The bill is now in the House Appropriations Committee where lawmakers are figuring out how much it will cost and just how much local school districts will be expected to come up with for remediation.

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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