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Montana program is moving forward to address increased lead levels in school water fixtures



Helena, Montana – For the past three years, Montana authorities have collaborated with schools all around the state to detect and address any increased lead levels in their drinking water systems.

New funds will soon be made accessible to assist in completing that task.

Leaders of Helena Public Schools claim that all of their schools have had their lead testing completed. They finished remediation work on all the fixtures that had elevated lead levels about a year ago, and they claim it has already made a significant difference.

The schools with the highest lead levels were Warren and Rossiter Elementary Schools in the Helena Valley, according to Neal Murray, the district’s manager of safety and operations.

He thinks this is because the structures date from the 1950s, have their own wells, and are not protected by an additive used in Helena’s water system to prevent lead from leaching out of water pipes.

“Once we moved into town, it was about picking the smaller schools and learning the process, rather than tackling the bigger schools,” Murray said. “By the time we reached the middle school and high school level, we really knew what we were doing.”

According to Murray, the home economics classroom at C.R. Anderson Middle School was one of the areas they concentrated on. Although it didn’t indicate the school’s highest lead levels, he claimed that there was a good potential that children would be directly exposed because they would be using the water to cook and prepare food.

All six of the room’s faucets now have water filters thanks to the district.

In a science classroom, Murray claimed that after estimating the expense of replacing the water faucets, it was decided to install signs at each one cautioning that the water should only be used in laboratories.

These are only short-term fixes, and the district also has to match them with teacher and student education.

“I have to admit that we struggled during that first year, when we were still sampling, to try to get the information out there, and the importance of what we’re doing,” Murray said. “But in this last year, really we’ve seen administrators and teachers take interest in flushing their fixtures and in the quality of the water that they’re providing.”

The lead in school drinking water rule was published by the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) in January 2020.

In order to prevent long-term health impacts like learning difficulties, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, developmental delays, and stunted growth, it aims to reduce early lead exposure in children.

To assist schools in putting the rule into practice, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has been assigned.

Greg Montgomery, manager of the DEQ Lead Reduction in School Drinking Water regulation, reports that 461 schools, out of around 590 in the state, have completed their initial water samples.

The majority of the 16,625 individual samples indicated lead contents of less than five parts per billion, which are low enough to not require any action.

The concentrations in 2,850 fittings, or around 18%, were between five and 15 parts per billion, indicating that the fixtures need to be repaired or replaced but can still be used provided they are cleaned often.

Another 1,200, or nearly 8%, showed concentrations greater than 15 ppb, necessitating the urgent removal of those fixtures from use by schools.

According to Montgomery, DEQ did have a program to help schools with the costs of lead cleanup, but there was only $40,000 available. The total amount of grants was $1,000 per institution.

“For a small school that just has a couple fixtures that need to be replaced, $1,000 would cover it,” said Montgomery. “Obviously for the larger schools or schools with more extensive lead in their fixtures, it’d only cover a few. A typical faucet may be a few hundred dollars to install, including labor. Bottle fill stations can be in the thousands — like $1,000 to $2,000 to purchase and install.”

During this year’s session of the Montana Legislature, lawmakers added $3.7 million to a major long-range spending bill, to provide additional grants to reimburse schools for lead remediation.

Montgomery said DEQ is still finalizing the details of the grant program — which will likely open in a few months — but he hopes it will remove some of the barriers to getting this needed work done.

“I know there might have been hesitation in the past because lead remediation can be expensive, and schools have strapped budgets, but with this new funding, it should alleviate a lot of that,” he said.

Also this week, the Biden administration announced the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is awarding Montana $565,000 in grants to address lead in school drinking water.

Montgomery said DEQ plans to use that money to help schools cover sampling costs and direct the state funding to remediation.


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