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N.Y. Schools Resist Lead Testing Bill

Jeff Turner

Environmentalists are pushing a bill in the New York Legislature that would mandate that schools test for lead in drinking water. But schools are pushing back.

The latest version of the bill, first proposed in 2001, would require all schools to test for lead. It would require the results to be posted on the school’s website. State taxpayers would pay for all of the testing and a portion of the remediation costs.

The New York State School Boards Association says it is not opposed to the bill. The group says it is “seeking revisions to it.”

The biggest disagreement is which agency will oversee the testing. Schools don’t want to create a new report, nor do they have to want to report to the state health department. They want to report to the education department. NYSSBA says the goal is to reduce the administrative burden on schools.

Having the New York State Education Department regulate lead testing would also likely reduce the frequency of the tests to once every five years. The health department could require more testing depending on the level of health risk.

“Schools don’t want to test because if they knew they would either have to tell people or they would have to hide it,” says Marc Edwards, a water safety professor at Virginia Tech. “So to some people ignorance is bliss.”

Before this year almost nothing has been done in regard to lead testing. Out of some 600 school districts in New York, the health department says only 15 districts participated in voluntary lead testing.

Some wealthy schools started testing after the crises in Flint, Michigan, and Newark, New Jersey, gained national attention. More schools began testing after reporters from WSHU, WNYC, and WNBC in New York began asking questions.

Still, some poor districts like Hempstead, Brentwood or Wyandanch, still haven't begun testing. Instead, they are waiting for funding and guidance from the state.

Commack School District recently reported lead levels ten times higher than EPA guidance.

Lisa Feit, a parent with two children in Commack, said she has taken her children to get tested for lead poisoning. “I think most of the people that were upset, were upset that it took the district a while to notify us. That was the biggest concern at the time. Now that we know about it, we feel better about it because we can handle it better.”

The legislation has support in the Senate, however support in the Assembly is less sure. Also it's not a marquee issue like ethics or mayoral control of the schools so it could also easily slip off the agenda.

Charles is senior reporter focusing on special projects. He has won numerous awards including an IRE award, three SPJ Public Service Awards, and a National Murrow. He was also a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists and Third Coast Director’s Choice Award.