HELENA — For the last three years, Montana regulators have been working with schools across the state to identify and respond to any elevated levels of lead in their drinking water systems. Soon, new funding will become available to help get that work done.
Helena Public Schools leaders say they have finished sampling for lead at all their schools. About a year ago, they completed remediation work on all the fixtures that showed higher lead levels – and leaders say it’s made a big difference already.
Neal Murray, the district’s safety and operations manager, says their first focus was on Warren and Rossiter Elementary Schools, in the Helena Valley – the schools that had the highest lead levels. He believes that is because the buildings date back to the 1950s, and because they have their own wells and don’t benefit from an additive in the city of Helena’s water system, intended to keep 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.”
At C.R. Anderson Middle School, Murray said one of the areas they focused on was the home economics classroom. He said it didn’t show the highest lead levels in the school, but they knew there was a high chance students would be directly exposed, since they’d be cooking and preparing food with the water. The district installed water filters on all six faucets in the room.
In a science classroom, Murray said they determined it would be a high cost to replace the water fixtures, so they instead decided to put in signs at each one, warning the water should be used only for laboratory use.
These are temporary solutions, and the district also had to pair them with education for teachers and students.
“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 Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services issued its rule on lead in school drinking water in January 2020. It’s aimed at reducing early lead exposure in children, which can be linked to long-lasting health effects like learning disabilities, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, developmental delays and stunted growth. The Montana Department of Environmental Quality is tasked with helping schools implement the rule.
Greg Montgomery, DEQ’s Lead Reduction in School Drinking Water rule manager, says 461 schools have finished their initial water samples, out of about 590 in the state. Out of about 16,625 individual samples collected, roughly three-quarters showed lead concentrations of less than five parts per billion – low enough that no action needs to be taken.
About 2,850 fixtures – roughly 18% – showed concentrations between five and 15 parts per billion, which means the fixture needs to be repaired or replaced, but can remain in service if it's flushed regularly. Another 1,200 – about 8% – had concentrations higher than 15 parts per billion, which means schools had to immediately remove those fixtures from service.
Montgomery says DEQ did have a program to assist schools with lead remediation costs, but it had only $40,000 available. Grants were capped at $1,000 per school.
“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.