How Far Will Montana’s Push to Remove Lead from School Drinking Water Go?

by | Aug 31, 2023 | Health

Montana’s legislature designated $3.7 million this spring to remove lead from school drinking-water supplies, then the state received $565,000 more on Aug. 1 from the $50 billion federal infrastructure package aiming to improve water systems nationally.

But even with these two new pools of money intended to last two years, the state’s schools may struggle to remove all but the most dangerous sources of lead, considering about half the schools that tested their water between July 2020 and February 2022 found high lead levels. Medical experts say no amount of lead is safe to ingest.

“When you start replacing faucets and drinking fountains in the hundreds of schools that we have in Montana, that gets eaten up pretty quickly,” said Democratic state Rep. Paul Tuss, who added the state funding to an infrastructure bill passed this spring.

If the total were divided evenly among the approximately 590 schools that need to meet the state’s new lead testing rules, each school would receive less than $8,000 from the state to test and upgrade its faucets, pipes, and water fountains. The state already knows that 110 schools have had at least one water fixture with lead levels of 15 parts per billion or higher, three times the level that requires action under Montana rules.

Most schools with lead levels over the state limit could address their “exceedances” with the state money, according to state Department of Environmental Quality spokesperson Moira Davin. “Our plan is to address as many schools as possible with this funding,” she said.

But part of the challenge for Montana is that it doesn’t yet know how extensive a problem its schools have. More than a fifth of the state’s schools facing the new rules — 129 facilities — hadn’t completed any sampling as of Aug. 3, said Greg Montgomery, director of the department’s Lead in Schools program. And replacing a single school’s pipes can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Ronnie Levin, an environmental health instructor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said that the money Montana has in hand is not a lot …

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