Lawmakers in Washington, D.C. and Trenton have introduced bills that address the problem of lead in the drinking water at schools.

On April 11, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker introduced the Transparent Environment in School Testing (TEST) for Lead Act, the Senate companion to Rep. Donald Payne’s House legislation that would require states to help schools test for lead if those states receive federal funding for safe water programs.

At a press conference in Newark, N.J. Congressman Donald Payne, Jr. discussed the House version of the TEST Act. While some school districts test their drinking water for lead, they are not required to do so under federal law. The TEST for Lead Act aims to help close that gap by allowing states the opportunity to use federal Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF) set-aside funds to provide support for training school personnel, as well as provide state assistance to the local school district or educational agency when a school finds high levels of lead. The bill would also allow states one year after the date of enactment to establish the testing program. (The DWSRF is a federal-state partnership program that provides financial support to water systems and to state safe water programs.)

The Transparent Environment in School Testing (TEST) for Lead Act would:

  • Amend the Safe Drinking Water Act to require the state to establish a program to test for lead in the drinking water in public and charter schools in order for the state to receive funding from the DWSRF. The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) was originally passed by Congress in 1974 to protect public health by regulating the nation’s public drinking water supply. The law was amended in 1986 and 1996 and requires many actions to protect drinking water and its sources.
  • Require the local education agencies with jurisdiction over the participating schools to notify parents, the Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the state in which they are located within 48 hours if the lead level exceeded the EPA’s lead action level.
  • Require testing water from faucets used for food preparation, sinks in bathrooms and water fountains, at least biannually at schools built prior to 1996 and at least annually in schools built in 1996 or after.

State Legislation On the state level, legislation was proposed earlier this month that would require every school in New Jersey, whether public or private, to test its water immediately for lead and at a certain interval to be determined under the law.

The legislation comes after the water crisis in Flint, Michigan as well as reports of lead contamination in Newark schools and reports that children in 11 municipalities in New Jersey had lead levels higher than that of students in Flint.

The Assembly bill A-3539, sponsored by Assemblywoman Elizabeth Muoio, would require that all public and non-public schools in the state conduct periodic, uniform testing for lead in the drinking water supply, using the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guidelines, which are stricter than the state’s. Under the bill, immediate testing would be required upon the bill’s enactment. This bill was approved by the Assembly Environment and Solid Waste Committee and was sent to the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

State Senate Action A state Senate bill, S-2022, sponsored by Senate President Steve Sweeney, Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz, and Sen. Ronald L. Rice, would require school districts to test water twice a year moving forward – once within 30 days of the start of school in the fall and again six months later. Districts would be required to notify parents, as well as the state education and environmental commissioners, of the results; to immediately provide an alternate source of drinking water if tests reveal elevated lead levels; and to install a filter or water-treatment device on all drinking fountains and sinks used to prepare food in buildings that have been flagged. Districts would also be required to submit a list of schools with lead pipes, solder or fixtures to the education commissioner.

This bill also has proposed appropriating $3 million to the New Jersey Department of Education to reimburse districts for testing. Another $20 million from the Clean Energy Fund would pay districts for installing water filters. Funding for additional remediation has yet to be identified. Sweeney also suggested that municipalities tap into the state’s Environmental Infrastructure Trust, which provides low-interest loans to government agencies for water projects, including replacing old pipes that are a common source of contaminated water. The bill has been referred to the Senate Education Committee.

On April 11, Michael Vrancik, NJSBA’s director of governmental relations, joined with Senators Sweeney, Ruiz and Rice, as well as with representatives from the Advocates for Children of New Jersey, the New Jersey Parent Teachers Association, the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, the NJEA, the AFT, the president of the Trenton school board, the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, and the Garden State Coalition of Schools, in a roundtable discussion concerning the bill. NJSBA supports the proposed legislation, and has expressed its expectation that state funding will be made available to districts that need to remediate for high lead levels.

Published in School Board Notes, April 19, 2016