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Montana Health Department Considers Mandatory Lead Testing At Public Schools

Running Water Fountain
Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
The Montana health department is considering a new rule that would require public schools to test drinking water fixtures annually for lead.

The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services held a public hearing Thursday in Helena on a new rule that would require all public schools to test water fixtures for lead.

Currently most Montana schools are not required to test water for lead, but a proposed rule would mandate that schools test every water fixture annually.

At the hearing Thursday, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality spoke in favor of the requirement. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen spoke against.

She wants to know how the same set of rules that would apply to brand-new schools would also apply.

“In rural Montana, what would this look like, if I have a school building from the 19th century,” says Arntzen.

Then, there’s the issue of paying for the testing. She says there’s no allocated state or federal funding to help schools comply with the proposed rules. That means schools would have to turn to their local tax payers for funding.

But to Skye Borden, money problems are a bad reason to not test.

“We pay for lead contamination. You either pay to prevent it or you pay for its impact,” says Borden.

Borden is the State Director for Environment Montana, a non-profit that advocates for environmental protections.

Borden’s organization filed state records requests in 2017 for public schools that voluntarily test their water in Montana’s four biggest cities.

“About 78% of the largest school districts we looked at did contain some form of lead,” she says. That statistic comes from a report Environment Montana released in April 2018.

That hits home for Borden, who has a kid starting kindergarten at a new school next year. She worries about the water quality but says she has no way of knowing unless a rule like this is implemented.

The public comment period was extended Thursday from July 19th to an undetermined date. That’s after State Superintendent Artzen and others asked to have it extended.