Montana schools are nearing a deadline to test their water for lead — and results so far aren't great
Of the Montana schools that have met the state's program deadline, most show high levels of lead in school drinking water.
In early 2020, the state of Montana for the first time required all public schools to test their drinking water for lead. Schools were given until December 31 of this year to take initial samples.
Now, with two weeks to go before the deadline, 136 schools — only about a quarter — have sent in samples and, of those, 125 have had at least one fixture exceed the state action level for lead.
Billings Superintendent Greg Upham said all 32 schools in Montana's largest district have submitted their water samples for lab testing.
“In a school district our size, you can imagine the amount of fixtures and faucets," he said.
As in other school districts in Montana, samples from Billings found that most schools had at least one fixture used for food and drinking water that exceeds state limits for lead content.
“Overall, I was pretty pleased," Upham said. "I thought it would be more, but enough that in a school [district] this size, it’s still an issue for sure.
"It’s going to take a while for us to get those replaced."
The prevalence of lead-based plumbing across the United States came under public scrutiny in 2014 after a high-profile case in Flint, Michigan.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says children are especially vulnerable to lead poisoning: Long-term exposure can cause issues including brain damage and developmental delays.
Montana announced its school lead testing program in January 2020, the same month the U.S. recorded its first case of COVID-19. Now, almost two years later, the state says most of Montana’s 560 schools have yet to comply with program requirements.
In Belt, a town of about 500 people in central Montana just east of Great Falls, Superintendent Joe Gaylord said schools in his district only recently submitted their samples.
“COVID really took all the energy focusing on it, and so the lead stuff kinda got put on the back burner," he said. "But everyone kinda knew the deadline was coming.”
Gaylord said the school district is waiting on the lab results.
“A lot of the piping has been replaced,” he said. “We do have a few areas that have older piping, so that would be where we would - we don’t have a high concern that we have an issue, but it will be nice to know if we do or not.”
Montana’s maximum allowable amount of lead in water is 5 parts per billion, the same concentration ceiling the U.S. Food and Drug Administration set for lead in bottled water. The state requires schools that exceed that limit to submit mitigation plans.
Caroline Pakenham with the climate action group Elevate co-authored a report examining how states are addressing lead in school drinking water. She said most U.S. schools were built before 1986, when the Safe Drinking Water Act set restrictions and the U.S. “had a lot of lead used in our plumbing.”
Pakenham said mitigation strategies can range from installing water filters to the more expensive solution of replacing pipes.
“Schools with less resources are going to have a harder time mitigating lead, and this directly affects the children that they serve,” she said. “So, if we really want to protect all children in all communities regardless of their income or school district, we really need to provide financial resources to help these facilities take care of these sources of lead.”
As part of the state program, schools are required to flush their pipes with water if it’s been sitting stagnant for longer than three days. The state says installing filters is one viable way for schools to address fixtures with high lead levels.
Greg Montgomery is the lead in school drinking water rule manager under the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. He says the state is currently able to use funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to cover sampling, but not mitigation.
“However, with the infrastructure bill that was passed ... they added five additional years onto that program and they also changed the wording to allow us to use that for remediation and sampling," Montgomery said, "so that’s an upcoming funding source that will be available for schools."
The infrastructure bill includes more than $50 billion nationwide for clean drinking water. Montgomery said the state could learn what its allocation will be in the coming weeks.
In the meantime, said Billings Superintendent Greg Upham, his schools are looking at turning off or replacing fixtures that tested beyond the state limit for lead.
“It’s like anything. You get something new and everyone freaks out, including myself, and then you start tackling it," he said. "And so, it’s feasible. I mean, it’s time and cost for sure, but we’re working at it.”