Schools urged to test water

State legislation encourages districts to check lead levels

School districts are being encouraged to test for lead in drinking water under legislation adopted as part of the new state budget.

Schools in Philadelphia and Butler County have found lead in their water, but there is little information to know how widespread the problem is in Pennsylvania, according to the statewide environmental group PennEnvironment. Lead is a potent neurotoxin that can impact a child’s ability to learn and develop.

In Pennsylvania, there is no required testing regimen for school drinking water, no limits on the allowable lead levels and no plan to remove lead infrastructure from schools. In PennEnvironment’s comparison of 16 states, those shortcomings gave Pennsylvania a grade of F.

“My understanding is school boards will affirmatively bring it up at a board meeting,” school district solicitor Carl Beard said. “I don’t have a problem with it because issues have arisen as to drinking water in schools.”

A class-action complaint was filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania in 2017 alleging that Butler Area School District permitted students to consume drinking water from two of its wells that contained lead levels about 200 percent to 300 percent higher than acceptable and safe standards.

“In light of all the mandates that come down from the state, I don’t think this one is onerous. I think it’s a safety issue. But testing is a decision that only boards can make,” Beard said.

The requirement for school board discussion on the topic does not actually require it to approve lead testing. However, Rep. Karen Boback, R-Dallas, is proposing legislation to make it a requirement.

“The lead testing language in this school code bill (which passed with the budget) is not a substitute for comprehensive legislation to keep our children safe,” a statement attributed to Boback read.

House Bill 2025, which she authored, would require regular lead testing for all school drinking water, public notification of all test results and set a maximum allowable level in the water of 5 parts per billion.

Needing 102 votes to pass the state House of Representatives, House Bill 2025 already has overwhelming bipartisan support with over 70 co-sponsors, according to a press release from Boback’s office.

“I urge the Legislature to take up my bill, which would ensure schools test for lead, disclose to parents what they find, and if indicated, remove lead from school water,” Boback’s statement read.

HB 2025 has been referred to the House Education Committee.

Pre-1970s buildings carry risks for lead in drinking water, said Stephanie Wein, clean-water advocate at PennEnvironment. And it’s a danger at urban, rural, suburban, wealthy or poor areas.

“Because no one is required to test, it’s hard to actually say how much of a problem it is statewide,” she said.

She added that where tests are performed in the state, the results have been troubling.

“The very few schools that have done testing have found levels of lead in excess of (Environmental Pro­tection Agency) standards. We feel that is just the tip of the iceberg.”

A request for information from Blair County schools was emailed. Spring Cove, Tyrone Area and Claysburg-Kimmel officials responded.

Two of Spring Cove’s four buildings were built in the late 1960s, Superintendent Betsy Baker said.

“We receive annual drinking water quality reports from the associated municipalities verifying water safety, but we have not done testing in the school facilities,” she said.

Tyrone Area has tested with good results.

“We had all of our buildings tested two years ago, and there was no lead detected,” Tyrone Area Superintendent Cathy Harlow said.

Claysburg-Kimmel Superintendent Darren McLaurin said the district receives an annual report from the Greenfield Township Municipal Authority on water quality.

“All of the levels came back satisfactory. Our elementary school was built in 1992 and our junior-senior high was completely renovated, including the plumbing, in 2004. We are working on establishing a testing protocol for both buildings. We will continue to follow any recommendations from the state.”

Mirror Staff Writer Russ O’Reilly is at 946-7435.