Schools fight lead in water in anticipation of federal assistance

PHILIPSBURG, Mont. The other day in this 19th-century mining town that has become a tourist hotspot, students walked into the lobby of Granite High School and walked past a new filling station for filtered water bottles.

Water samples taken from the drinking fountain the station replaced had a lead concentration of 10 ppb, double the Montana legal limit for schools of 5 ppb for the toxic metal.

Thomas Gates, principal and superintendent of a small school district in Philipsburg, is concerned that new faucets, sinks and filters installed by the district at about 30 water sources are temporary repairs. The high school, built in 1912, is probably riddled with outdated pipes and other infrastructure, like so much in this historic city.

“If we change faucets or something like that, the lead is still coming in,” Gates said.

A school in Philipsburg is one of hundreds of schools in Montana trying to remove lead from water after state officials ordered schools to test it for lead. So far, 74% of schools that have submitted samples have found at least one high lead faucet or drinking fountain. Many of these schools are still trying to track down the source of the problem and raise money for long-term solutions.

In his February 7 address to the U.S. Congress, President Joe Biden said the infrastructure bill he championed in 2021 will help fund the replacement of lead pipes that serve “400,000 schools and daycare centers so that every child in America can drink pure water. ”

Chris Cornelius stands in front of the filtered water bottle station in the school hallway.
Chris Cornelius, chief curator of Philipsburg Public Schools, stands at a filtered water bottling station that has replaced a drinking fountain with 10 ppb lead, double Montana’s legal limit of 5 ppb.(Katherine Houghton / KHN)

However, as of mid-February, states were still waiting to find out how much infrastructure money they would receive and when. And schools are now trying to figure out how to respond to toxic levels of lead. The federal government does not require lead testing from schools and kindergartens, although it does provide grants to states for voluntary testing.

Over the past decade, news of unsafe drinking water in places like Flint, Michigan has raised national alarms. Politicians have vowed to increase inspections in schools where children, especially vulnerable to lead poisoning, drink water every day. Lead poisoning slows down the development of children, causing problems with learning, speech, and behavior. Metal can cause damage to organs and the nervous system.

A new report from the advocacy group Environment America Research & Policy Center has found that most states do not provide oversight of lead in schools. And the testing that has taken place so far shows a wide spread of infection from rural settlements to large cities.

At least 19 states require schools to test drinking water for lead. A 2022 law in Colorado requires child care providers and schools that serve children from preschool through fifth grade to test their drinking water by May 31 and make repairs if necessary. Meanwhile, California officials, who mandated lead testing in schools in 2017, are considering requiring counties to install filters on high-lead water sources.

As states step up scrutiny, difficult and costly corrections remain in schools.

By passing the infrastructure bill, Congress appropriated $15 billion to replace lead pipes and $200 million to lead testing and school repairs.

White House spokesman Abdullah Hassan did not provide a source for the 400,000 figure Biden gave as the number of schools and day care centers targeted for pipe replacements. Several clean water organizations also didn’t know where the number came from.

Part of the problem is that no one knows how many lead pipes send drinking water to schools.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that between 6 and 10 million service lines are in use throughout the country. These are small pipes that connect plumbing to plumbing systems in buildings. Other organizations say there could be as many as 13 million.

But the problem goes beyond those pipes, said John Rumpler, senior director of the Clean Water for America campaign at Environment America.

Typically, lead pipes connected to public water supplies are too small to serve large schools. Water pollution in these buildings is most likely due to old faucets, fountains, and indoor plumbing.

“Lead contaminates drinking water in schools” when lead pipes are not connected to the municipal water supply, Rumpler said. Due to the complex plumbing system in schools, “there are more places where lead can come into contact with water.”

Montana has more data on lead-contaminated school water than most other states. But gaps remain. Of the state’s 591 schools, 149 have not submitted samples to the state despite an initial 2021 deadline.

John Ebelt, a spokesman for the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, said the state has made its deadlines flexible due to the covid-19 pandemic and is working with schools that need to complete testing.

Greg Montgomery, who runs Montana’s lead-monitoring program, said testing was sometimes put on hold when school districts experienced staff turnover. Some smaller counties have one custodian who oversees testing. Larger areas may have repair crews to work with, but also have much more coverage.

Near the Burley McWilliams Missoula County Public Schools office, about 75 miles northwest of Philipsburg, there are dozens of water samples in small plastic bottles for a second round of lead testing. The director of operations and maintenance for the district, which has about 10,000 students, McWilliams said lead has become a weekly topic of discussion with his school principals, who have heard concerns from parents and staff.

At several schools in the district, drinking fountains and classroom sinks were clogged with bags taped to the faucets, indicating that the work had not yet been completed.

The county spent approximately $30,000 on initial repairs to major water sources, replacing parts such as faucets and sinks. The school has received federal coronavirus money to buy water bottle stations to replace some of the old infrastructure. But if the new parts don’t fix the problem, the district will most likely have to replace the pipes, which is not in the budget.

The state initially provided $40,000 for lead mitigation in schools, which McWilliams said amounted to about $1,000 for his district.

“The only thing that disappointed me about this process is the lack of additional funding,” McWilliams said. He hopes state or federal dollars will arrive soon. He expects the final round of testing to take place in March.

Montgomery said Feb. 14 that he expects to hear “any day” what federal funding the state gets to help reimburse schools for lead mitigation.

Back in Philipsburg, Chris Cornelius, the head caretaker of the school, keeps a handwritten list of all high lead water sources on his desk. A new sign appeared on the sink in the corner of his office, stating in bold type that “water is not safe to drink.”

According to the state, half of the 55 faucets in the high school building had lead concentrations high enough to require repair, replacement, or shutdown.

Cornelius worked to fix problem areas: new sinks in the gym’s locker rooms, new faucets and inlets on every appliance that passed the high pressure test, water bottle filling stations with built-in filtration systems, such as in the school lobby.

Chris Cornelius bent over the sink, examining the faucet he had removed.  In his other hand he holds a wrench.
Chris Cornelius, head curator of Philipsburg Public Schools in Montana, checks a faucet filter in a home economics class. Despite the new faucet and intake pipes, this sink is one of several in the county that still has lead levels above the state threshold. (Catherine (Katherine Houghton / KHN)

Samples of many devices have been tested for safety. But some have gotten worse, meaning that in some parts of the building the source of the problem goes deeper.

Cornelius was preparing for the third test. He plans to run the water 12 to 14 hours before the test and remove the faucet filters that seem to trap dirt coming from below. He hopes that this will reduce the concentration enough to overcome the thresholds of the state.

The EPA recommends collecting water samples for testing at least eight hours after fixtures were last used, which “maximizes the likelihood of detecting the highest concentrations of lead.”

If the lead concentration in the water sources gets high again, Cornelius doesn’t know what else to do.

“I’ve exhausted my options for now,” said Cornelius. “My last move is to put more signs on or turn it off.”

KHN correspondent Rachana Pradhan contributed to this report.

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