A small Montana school an hour northeast of Billings recently detected lead in a school faucet.
The finding comes just before the start of the school year and amid discussion about how stringently public schools in Montana should watch for lead.
Framed photos of each graduating class line the hall of Custer Public Schools.
“I’m up here on the top,” says superintendent David Perkins and points to the graduating class of 1976.
Perkins isn’t just a Custer School graduate and now superintendent for 90-some students.
“I am a busdriver, I can run the boiler, been to boiler school. I’m the superintendent, I’m the principal, right now I’ve been doing maintenance things,” he says.
Now, Perkins has added a lead issue to his long “to do” list, on top of kicking off school this week.
Perkins unlocks the door that leads into the cafeteria kitchen. There are two sinks. The one that tested positive for lead is in the corner.
Earlier this month, Perkins received test results taken in February showing the lead in Custer School’s water was at 37 parts per billion. That’s 22 parts higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s guidelines for a safe level of lead in water.
Lead usually gets into water through internal plumbing from things like lead-soldered pipes.
The Montana Department of Environmental Quality confirmed that one sink in particular is the culprit, and it’s located in the cafeteria kitchen.
Perkins says the water from this faucet is almost exclusively for making coffee.
“Actually it was the husband of the cook who was getting a lot of the coffee there, so we are not using that water. We either use the water from some other source or bottled,” says Perkins.
DEQ Public Water Supply Bureau chief Jon Dilliard says lead presents a health threat to students’ developing brains and bodies.
“So, the concern is that the lead could impact their ability to learn, it could result in mental problems in the future,” says Dilliard.
Right now, only schools that are connected to their own water source are required to sample their water.
If lead is detected above 15 parts per billion, DEQ requires the school or community to present a corrosion control plan to show how they’ll change the chemistry of the water.
Dilliard says they have six months to complete that and then two years to implement the approved plan.
Short term, Dilliard says the school has 10 days from the point of alert to let the public know about the presence of lead.
“There’s no real requirement that they have to shut it down, but they have to inform the users,” he says.
That could be through a sign above the water source or an email, for example.
Custer Public Schools has posted a fact sheet about lead in drinking water to its webpage.
DEQ says over the last two years, about 13 schools have exceeded the safe amount of lead. About 100 schools in Montana are required to test for lead.
Custer Schools falls into that category, and Superintendent David Perkins says they test their water regularly. He says they also installed a new well after detecting high levels of nitrate in the water about three years ago.
“We shut things down that day before I even got back, I think we even sent kids home early that day because… we actually brought in bottled water to keep the school running. We do what we have to to take care of our kids,” says Perkins.
The Montana Department of Public Health & Human Services has been working on proposed new rules for the past year that would require every public school in the state to test every faucet in school buildings, no matter the water source, and to act if lead is found at or above 5 parts per billion.
The DPHHS comment period for these rules was extended and now ends September 16.