AUGUSTA — Lawmakers are once again considering requiring schools to test drinking water for lead following the discovery of elevated levels of the harmful metal in some schools connected to public water systems.

Under current law, the roughly 300 schools that draw their water from wells must test for lead at least once every three years. But about 500 schools on public water face no similar requirement because water suppliers are already required to conduct extensive testing even though lead often leaches into water from the plumbing in older buildings.

Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-South Portland, pointed to elevated lead levels at schools in Yarmouth and Benton – schools supplied by water utilities – in 2016 as justification for expanding the requirement to all schools in Maine. Both school systems replaced older faucets or other plumbing suspected of causing lead levels to exceed federal health standards.

“We know that no level of lead is safe for our children and that exposure to lead can lead to impaired development, especially for developing brains,” Millett told members of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee. “We should ensure that our kids aren’t being exposed to lead no matter where their water comes from or the pipes it travels through.”

‘ENTIRELY PREVENTABLE SOURCE OF HARM’

Lead is a heavy metal that was used for centuries in plumbing and was still used in the solder for copper pipes until the 1980s. Over time, corrosion can result in lead leaching into a building’s water supply, potentially exposing water users – but particularly children – to levels that can damage brain development, slow bone growth and cause chronic health problems.

The bill, L.D. 153, would direct the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to develop rules to implement the testing system and would give the agency the authority to order schools to reduce exposure to lead until the problem is addressed. The proposal would also give lead abatement projects in schools the top priority for funding through the state’s School Revolving Renovation Fund.

“We appreciate the path that this bill has taken to date because improvements have been made and it will now be … the experts that are in charge of this,” said Victoria Wallack, representing the Maine School Boards Association and the Maine School Superintendents Association.

Maine Political Report



Other organizations supporting Millett’s bill Tuesday included the Maine Education Association, Environment Maine and the Environmental Health Strategy Center.

Sarah Woodbury, state advocacy director for the Environmental Health Strategy Center, said “exposure to lead remains a serious yet entirely preventable source of harm to children’s brains.”

“It is also essential to note that all of the experts – including the United States CDC and the U.S. EPA – have stated that there is no safe level of exposure to lead,” Woodbury said. “Any and all lead is harmful and should be avoided.”

SIMILAR BILL VETOED BY LEPAGE

Many towns in Maine served by water utilities have begun voluntarily testing in-school water supplies in response to the recent incidents in this state as well as the high-profile contamination problems seen in Flint, Michigan, and other cities. The state now offers to cover the costs of testing up to 10 water samples from schools, although not all systems have taken advantage of the free testing kits.

To date, the program has paid to test just over 2,000 samples for schools since late 2016. But David Braley, assistant director of the Drinking Water Program within the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said the utilization of the free testing program has dwindled over the past six months.

Braley testified in support of Millett’s bill Tuesday.

Last year, former Republican Gov. Paul LePage successfully vetoed a similar bill in part because the state already offers free testing.

“(The bill) is unnecessary and makes complicated what is a straightforward method already in place for addressing this issue,” LePage wrote in his July 2018 veto message. “If schools are unwilling to take advantage of free testing and the remediation funding now available to ensure proper public health, another statute is not going to make them do it.”

The Maine Department of Education opposed that bill in 2018 but the department – now part of the administration of Democratic Gov. Janet Mills – testified neither for nor against the measure Tuesday.

Pat Hinckley, transportation and facilities administrator for the Department of Education, said the Maine School Facilities Program and School Revolving Renovation Fund already allow schools to tap into those funds to address “hazardous materials,” which include lead. Hinckley recommended the committee remove that language from the bill because she said it was unnecessary.

The committee is expected to hold a work session on the bill at a future date.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

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