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Alle-Kiski Valley school districts worry about lead testing cost

| Saturday, May 6, 2017, 9:57 p.m.
Louis B. Ruediger | Tribune-Review
After lead problems in Flint, Mich., and at Summit Elementary School in Butler County and Colfax Elementary in Springdale, state lawmakers again are proposing legislation that would require public schools to test their drinking water for lead annually. Allegheny County is considering a proposal that would require all young children in the county to be tested for lead.

Regional and national news reports about lead in drinking water motivated the Allegheny Valley School District to test the water at its buildings.

There was nothing in state law requiring the district to do the tests, which found dangerously high levels of lead in the water from one of the sinks and a fountain at Colfax Upper Elementary in Springdale.

But legislation introduced by a Philadelphia-area state senator would require districts to test the water at schools for lead every year.

Sen. Art Haywood's bill also would require districts to share test results with parents and, if excessive levels are detected, to come up with a plan to ensure no child or adult is exposed to lead contamination.

Districts would have to come up with remediation plans if lead levels exceed the maximum contaminant goal, now 0.015 milligrams per liter, set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in national primary drinking water regulations.

According to the EPA, exposure to lead can cause delays in physical or mental development in infants and children.

Children could show slight deficits in attention span and learning abilities. In adults, it can cause kidney problems and high blood pressure.

Lead gets into drinking water from the corrosion of plumbing systems and erosion of natural deposits in or near drinking water sources.

Awareness of the danger lead poses to children is important, said Haywood, a Democrat representing Philadelphia and Montgomery counties.

“What I've read is, the impact can be irreversible,” Haywood said. “We don't want to put our kids in a position where at school, the place you're supposed to learn, you have an experience of drinking the water that cripples your learning for the rest of your life.”

Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Brookline, supported Haywood's bill when it was first introduced last year. That bill died in committee but it has been re-introduced this year.

With Republicans in charge, “If Democrats sponsor these bills, it's very often they don't move. They just sit there,” Fontana said.

Haywood's bill has been referred to the Senate Education Committee.

“The committee will need to take action on the bill before it can come to the full Senate for consideration,” said Jennifer Kocher, spokeswoman for Republican Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman. “The committee chairmen have latitude to determine their agendas and what bills will be considered by the committee.”

Sen. John Eichelberger Jr., R-Altoona, is chairman of the Senate Education Committee. He said he had not yet looked at Haywood's bill; he did not chair the committee last session.

“We have a long list of bills we've been trying to work through,” he said. “We'll look at it and see if it's something we can work on and move.”

Fontana said the bill seems like a “no-brainer.”

“We know for a fact lead can affect young people and pregnant moms more than anyone else,” Fontana said. “Our most vulnerable are the ones that should be tested on a regular basis. Schools are where they're at. Excess lead is a deterrent to learning. We want to test where our children are most vulnerable, that's in the schools.”

Dr. Bernard Goldstein is an environmental toxicologist and former dean of the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health.

While saying it's appropriate to get lead out of drinking water, he warned against overreacting and stigmatizing children as being learning disabled for life if they lived in an area with a lead problem.

“I'm all in favor of hyperbole, but not when it hurts kids,” he said. “What we're talking about is something parents should not panic over.”

But public outcry over situations like Flint, Mich., the temporary closure of Summit Elementary School near Butler because of high lead levels in the water there and ongoing concern in the city of Pittsburgh public schools over lead in school water may mean the iron is hot for the state to mandate testing.

If the state imposes requirements, Goldstein said it should also provide the money to pay for them, so schools don't have to make trade-offs, such as increasing class sizes.

“I would hope the state goes for a funded mandate, and not an unfunded mandate,” he said. “The trade-offs could do more harm.”

Allegheny Valley Superintendent Pat Graczyk said the tests his small district conducted at its three buildings cost about $5,000.

“I would certainly be OK with some type of legislation that promotes the health and safety of students,” he said. “I would be cautious of how that would be paid for. School districts are strapped for money.”

Because Allegheny Valley plans to close Colfax, it removed or took out of service the fixtures that tested high for lead, rather than pay to replace them.

“The cost of testing was reasonable,” Graczyk said. “It's the measures you have to take in correcting whatever the problem may be that gets more expensive. It's a no-brainer to fix things if it's going to make the environment healthier and safer for kids.”

Despite testing not being required, some other districts have also tested their water. After the lead crisis arose in Flint, Mich., the Kiski Area School District had its water tested a year ago, Superintendent Tim Scott said.

No high lead levels were found, Scott said.

Scott said he'd want to hear from experts in the field if annual testing is necessary. “If your results come back good, is this something you need to repeat every year?” Scott said. “Or is that an overreaction to a few situations that were handled less responsibly?”

Freeport Area School District tested its four buildings in February, Superintendent Ian Magness said.

All of the samples tested were below the drinking water limit or action level for lead of 0.0150 milligrams per liter, the district said. The majority were less than 0.005 milligrams per liter.

Magness said Freeport is coming up with its own testing routine.

“That legislation would probably come as a mandate without the fiscal assistance to be able to meet such a mandate,” Magness said. “We weren't worried about those costs. We want to make sure our kids in our buildings are safe. We did ours without a mandate.”

Brian C. Rittmeyer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-226-4701, brittmeyer@tribweb.com or on Twitter @BCRittmeyer.

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