December 5, 2019

(THE ADVOCATE) Permanent link

The December Advocate

Each month, the AASA policy and advocacy team writes an article that is shared with our state association executive directors, which they can run in their state newsletters as a way to build a direct link between AASA and our affiliates as well as AASA advocacy and our superintendents. The article is called The Advocate, and here is the December 2019 edition.

This November, the Environmental Protection Agency announced new provisions to the Lead and Copper Pipe Rule (LCR), which, for the first time, dictates how Community Water Systems (CWS) test for the prevalence of lead in schools’ and childcare centers’ drinking water.

The EPA proposal would require Community Water Systems to collect samples from five drinking water outlets at each school and two drinking water outlets at each childcare facility served by the CWS. This rule will signify the first federal regulation dictating how schools must test for lead since the passage of the LCR in 1981.

This regulation has the potential to be helpful to districts. Seventeen states have no laws requiring that all schools test for lead in drinking water and this will be a positive step in the right direction for school leaders in those states. However, the revised rule doesn’t go far enough to ensure that school leaders are given an accurate picture of the safety of their students’ drinking water.

The regulation fails to outline effective lead testing procedures for CWS’s that serve public schools and childcare facilities, which could lead to confusion and false negatives for superintendents who are trying to interpret, inform and remediate lead testing results for their students and communities.

Specifically, the rule would require CWS’s that serve a public school or childcare facility to alert school system leaders to any testing results that score above the EPA’s 15 micrograms of lead per liter of water (15 ppb) action level. While this does signify an improvement from the status quo, we’re concerned that this criterion could mislead school system leaders into believing their water systems are safe for consumption.

The reason for this goes back to the establishment of the action level in 1991. During that time, the EPA created the action level under the rationale that it was a realistic metric of compliance for CWS’s. At the time, the EPA also acknowledged that there was no established safe level of lead exposure, and since then, has put forth research indicating that even low lead blood levels in children highly correlate to physical and neurological disabilities.

Considering this research and the expanded scope of the LCR to test schools and childcare facilities, it is incomprehensible that the EPA has not adopted a more stringent action threshold in the 28 years since its implementation.

Moreover, the EPA’s action level is practically useless because the testing results do not show superintendents whether their schools’ drinking water is safe. Instead, the test indicates whether a CWS is complying with the 15ppb action level. This is a borderline negligent misstep by the EPA, as it could cause superintendents, who are looking to be transparent with lead testing results, to unknowingly misrepresent the safety of their drinking water.   

In response, AASA is advocating for the EPA to fix this flaw by urging the agency to adopt a 1 ppb standard for lead in schools’ drinking water and share guidance to any district that undergoes lead testing. Additionally, we are imploring the EPA to continue working with the U.S. Dept. of Education to develop strategies that help LEAs properly communicate lead testing results to their stakeholders.

Similarly to the EPA’s action level, there are also flaws with the proposed regulation’s lead testing procedures for CWS’s. While the multiple testing requirements are a step in the right direction, it is not enough since the corrosion and breaking off of lead particles from pipes can be highly variable.

According to Environment America's 2019 report, “Get the Lead Out,” multiple water tests from one tap can result in highly variable lead levels between samples. For example, in a lead sampling study conducted in 2013, researchers concluded that a single sample from a water tap could not accurately reflect the levels of lead flowing through the fixture. Consequently, this means that depending on multiple variables (e.g., weather, time of day, or location of an outlet), LEAs may receive inaccurate results from federal lead testing. To address the variability of lead testing, AASA is pushing the EPA to amend the rule so that CWS’s must test all water drinking outlets in a district to ensure our members have access to the most accurate information.

Finally, AASA is concerned about the lack of federal funding that is available to implement these new testing provisions for LEAs that act as their own CWS. According to the EPA, approximately 7,000 schools control their water supply (such as a well) and are regulated under the LCR. For these entities, the new provisions of the LCR could create financial hardships for LEAs with limited resources.

In addition, for districts that discover that there is lead in their water, there is no funding for remediation at the federal level that they can access. They would have to dip into local education funding to acquire filters, replace faucets and fountains and take other steps to get the lead out. At a minimum the EPA should include a list of federal and state funding resources for LEAs that independently conduct their lead testing and that may have to remove lead from water systems when it is found.

However, we also believe it’s imperative that EPA and the Administration propose new funding to help schools fix the problem - i.e., install filters, replace lead-bearing fixtures, etc.

Overall, AASA believes this regulation is a long overdue step in the right direction, but feels the rule falls short of ensuring children and school personnel are not exposed to lead in schools. However, by amending the action level to 1ppb, increasing LEAs’ access to lead testing guidance, improving testing procedures for CWS’s, and making funding materials more available to districts, this proposal has the potential to ensure greater steps are taken to improve the safety of drinking water at public schools and childcare facilities.

AASA will comment on the NPRM before the closing date on January 13, 2020. We will provide a template on the Leading Edge Blog for you to comment as well. We hope you take a moment to weigh in on this important regulation.