California school organizations urge veto of latest bill to remove lead from school water

A State Act of 2017 led schools across California to have their faucets tested for lead as part of a program to reduce lead in school drinking water.

A new bill that proposes to remove lead from schools and public buildings, pending Governor Gavin Newsom’s signature, is now facing opposition from school groups.

Public employee unions and organizations representing school districts, school boards and school affairs officials are battling over legislation outlining how to protect students and school adults from lead in water.

Newsom must choose a side: Senate Bill 1144 easily passed the Legislative Assembly.

Written by Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, on behalf of the California State Pipe Trades Council, the bill would require school districts to write a water efficiency and quality report determining lead levels in each building and to replace or install filters on each device. with high levels of lead. Districts may have to replace lead pipes in buildings – if the state dedicates funds to do so.

Lead is a highly toxic metal that can harm the health and cognitive development of children when ingested or inhaled, even at extremely low levels. An EdSource series four years ago revealed the significant risk of lead exposure in many of the schools that tested it.

By default, the bill would adopt the current, outdated standard for dangerous levels of lead in water. Established more than ten years ago by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, it is 15 parts per billion. Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and many child health advocates say anything above 5 parts per billion is dangerous to children’s health. President Joe Biden’s EPA the admin said he was in favor of lowering the threshold, and that could happen by 2024.

The level of lead contamination requiring action was not brought up in the SB 1144 negotiations, and children’s health groups were not involved, according to those familiar with the discussions. The author and sponsor of the bill have agreed to push back the deadline for compliance, staggering it over four years, starting in 2027.

But that and other changes narrowing the bill’s scope have not appeased the opposition, whose August 16 letter said the bill would create an expensive unfunded mandate that could cost hundreds of millions of dollars and an expensive and complicated new program that “failed to identify a persistent problem in schools” that would solve.

The letter does not say so, but several coalition members said the pipe fitters union had a personal interest in supporting the bill. Troy Flint, vice president of communications for the school boards association, said the purpose of the bill was to create “income and employment opportunities for the unions that will do the work.”

Signatories to the letter of objection included the Association of California School Administrators, the California Association of School Business Officials, the California School Boards Association, Los Angeles Unified, and the Riverside County Office of Education.

Supporters of the bill include the California Federation of Teachers, the California Teachers Association, the California Water Association and the State Building and Construction Trades Council.

To some extent, the bill would pick up where a 2017 state law, Assembly Bill 746, left off. This legislation required local water companies to test lead levels in every school. In cases where levels exceeded 15 parts per billion, districts were to shut down fixtures, take mitigating measures like flushing faucets regularly, or replace fixtures. The deadline was July 2019.

But, unlike a few states that require periodic testing, this was only a one-time requirement and some districts were exempt. In larger schools, where only pinpoint testing was required, some lead-laden sockets may have been missed. In violation of the law, some districts did not notify parents that their schools had unsafe lead levels.

A Ed Source Analysis test results for 3,700 schools that had tested for lead in the summer of 2018 found that 4% – 150 schools – had lead levels above 15 parts per billion. But at least one outlet in 897 schools tested between 5 and 15 ppb, requiring no action. This is important because scientists and doctors have criticized the federal standard of 15 ppb as being too high.

The maximum permitted concentration of lead in bottled water sold commercially is 5 ppb. The American Academy of Physicians, stating that any amount of lead is dangerous for children, says the limit should not exceed 1 ppb. The 5 ppb standard was mooted during negotiations over AB 746, but the Brown administration raised concerns about higher costs.

State and districts may choose a lower standard

States have the ability to lower the security level standard and districts can act on their own. Oakland, Long Beach and Los Angeles are among the districts that have adopted 5 ppb as a target for outlet repair and replacement in their schools. Berkeley Unified has adopted a 1 ppb limit in schools.

“We know there is no safe level of lead. Schools should work to eliminate this source of lead for these children,” said Dr. Jennifer Lowry, chair of the Environmental Health Council of the American Academy of Pediatrics, at EdSource in 2018.

Children Now, which advocates for children on health and education issues, has taken no position on SB 1144 but supports “regulations and guidelines supported by the scientific community and pediatricians, who know that no amount exposure to lead is safe for growth”. children,” said Vince Stewart, the organization’s vice president for policy and programs.

Whether the gauge is 5 parts or 15 ppb, there is no reliable estimate of the amount of work needed to achieve safe levels in districts and charter schools.

The state legislature earmarked about $17 million to help eligible districts test and replace light fixtures in 2018 and 2019. But that clearly wasn’t enough. Placing a $13 billion bond for school construction in the March 2020 ballot, legislative leaders and Newsom designated $150 million to test and repair water fountains and high-lead fixtures, to be distributed to the poorest districts.

Districts requiring larger removal efforts, such as replacing a contaminated water main, could apply for additional funding of up to 10% of the value of a school renovation project, with the state paying 60% of the cost. Ian Padilla, who represents the Coalition for Adequate School Housing, which is lobbying for funding for the facilities, said the group had asked for $500 million for lead reduction in the bond.

Interest decreases with the defeat of the link

But in March 2020, voters defeated the tie, which unfortunately for supporters was unlucky enough to be designated Proposition 13 on the ballot. Padilla said with Covid, primarily an airborne contagion, soon monopolizing attention, the priority for facility spending shifted from lead in water to HVAC systems and air filters.

Newsom proposed to commit $1.8 billion to deferred maintenance of school buildings in the 2022-23 budget, but it was reduced during final negotiations.

The current bill does not include any funding for testing and the work it might require, though about $15 billion of Biden’s $350 billion in infrastructure funding, passed in December, is for the elimination of lead pipes in homes and schools.

In a letter supporting SB 1144, Tiffany Mok, legislative representative for the California Federation of Teachers, said schools in California are “especially hard hit” by poor water quality. This “equates to a public health crisis, and we cannot sit around while our children drink unsafe water,” she wrote.

School organizations, however, have said they oppose the pipe fitters union’s approach to solving the lead problem. The union did not consult them when drafting the bill and ignored a model that had worked. Under the previous law, the burden of testing fell to water agencies. This took advantage of the expertise of these agencies in identifying potential problems and ensured separate oversight of schools.

“Overall, I saw the bill as a huge success, but there’s still work to be done,” said Eric Bakke, former legislative advocate for the California School Boards Association, who participated in both to the drafting of the previous law and the rejected Proposition 13. .

Under the current bill, if lead is found at higher levels at the faucet than at the entrance to a school, districts could be required to search for and remove lead pipes. This could require expensive construction work supervised by undefined qualified personnel.

The bill says that invasive techniques would not be necessary. But in a letter urging Newsom to veto the bill, Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Alberto Carvalho wrote that his district didn’t know how it could be done without tearing down the walls and sampling the pipe, potentially freeing up from asbestos and harmful chemicals.

The author of the 2017 law requiring water providers to test water in schools was Congresswoman Lorena Gonzales, D-San Diego. In January, she resigned from the Assembly to become the top leader of the California Labor Federation, the organization representing organized labor.

“I was not involved in this bill,” she wrote in an email this week. “I support all bills that have the support of our affiliated unions in their jurisdiction.”

The California State Pipe Trades Council lobbyist did not respond to requests for comment.

The bill would also apply to all state buildings. It includes lengthy sections requiring testing and mitigation for waterborne bacteria causing Legionnaires’ disease, of which no known outbreaks have been reported in schools. The reduced final version would only apply to buildings of at least 10 floors with water towers – excluding schools, but not some public buildings.

Newsom has until the end of September to decide whether to sign, veto, or let SB 1144 become law without his signature.

John Fensterwald writes about education policy and its impact in California.

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