The goal of the lead in school drinking water reduction rule which went into effect in Montana just under a year ago is pretty straightforward -- limit kids’ exposure to lead at school.
But for schools across the state, following the rule, could be a challenge.
It’s as clear as this water -- a refreshing sip shouldn’t come with a side of lead. And a statewide rule is aimed at making sure that’s the case at schools across Montana.
“Children spend a large part of their childhood in schools and are more susceptible to lead exposure than adults,” explained Montana DEQ Lead in School Drinking Water manager Greg Montgomery.
The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) -- with the help of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and the Montana Office of Public Instruction (OPI) —rolled out the lead reduction in school drinking water rule at the beginning of this year.
All schools under the OPI have to test water from every fixture that students could possibly drink from -- and that can be a lot of fixtures.
“Especially in elementary schools where you have a sink that you could possibly get drinking water from and a drinking fountain. You could have conceivably two fixtures for every classroom. Plus, your restrooms, plus your kitchens,” commented Kalispell Public Schools Superintendent Micah Hill.
The fixtures have to come back with less than five parts-per-billion of lead to be usable. But according to Hill, getting to that usable level “it’s challenging to say the least.”
Kalispell is one of the only districts that have submitted lead results and all of the five schools sampled so far have fixtures with elevated levels of lead.
For example, of the 57 fixtures sampled at Elrod Elementary School, 43 exceeded the state action level of lead content. And of those 43, water from 16 fixtures tested in the state-designated highest category which means those fixtures must be replaced immediately.
“We have drinking fountains in our hallways that water is completely disconnected. Not just shut off but cut the line to the water,” Hill said.
That could be the case at schools across the state.
“We are expecting to see higher lead concentrations in the older buildings, and less so in some of the newer ones,” Montgomery explained.
Lead can seep into water from plumbing and fixtures -- especially older plumbing and fixtures -- and Montana has a lot of older schools.
The American Society of Civil Engineers reports the average age of a school facility in Montana is 53 years old.
“At the end of the day, the districts are going to be liable to go in and replace fixtures, redo plumbing,” Hill said.
That won’t be cheap. Currently, Kalispell Public Schools has installed filters on fixtures that showed elevated lead levels.
They work but at $50 a pop -- not counting the cost of replacements -- they aren’t a long-term solution. The long-term solution is to install new plumbing and fixtures.
OPI and DEQ have a remediation grant program that provides up to $1,000 per school but Hill says work that needs to be done across the district could cost millions. It’s a high price to pay. But to Hill the choice is clear.
“We owe it to our kids to make sure that we’re providing the best possible infrastructure for them to be able to learn and grow,” Hill concluded.
According to state records, only eight schools have submitted lead samples so far. Schools must test their water by Dec. 31, 2021.