BARRE — Testing is underway at two local schools, but it’s not the kind typically associated with this time of year. It’s the water that’s being tested, and school officials — not students — are anxiously awaiting the results.
They aren’t alone.
In addition to Spaulding High School and Barre Town Middle and Elementary School, 10 other schools from three other districts have been asked to expedite testing their drinking water for the presence of lead. The isolated efforts should help the state identify — and hopefully iron out — any wrinkles associated with a broader testing mandate reflected in recently passed legislation.
That legislation requires tap-by-tap testing in all Vermont schools and childcare centers, which will start after students return from summer vacation in the fall and must be conducted while school is in session. The testing must be completed no later than Dec. 31, 2020.
However, while most Vermont schools and childcare centers have been asked to complete “tap inventories” before school lets out for the summer, a select few are expected to complete the entire testing regimen in that tight time frame.
Those chosen have ties to one of the 16 schools that participated in a pilot study that started in 2017 and was completed more than a year ago.
Barre City Elementary and Middle School was among the pilot study participants, which is why its sister school in the soon-to-be-launched Barre Unified Union School District was asked to conduct the testing before school lets out for the summer.
The list includes three schools in the Springfield Supervisory District, including Springfield High School; three schools in the Maple Run Supervisory District, including Bellows Free Academy in St. Albans; and four schools in the Hartford Supervisory District, including Hartford Memorial High School.
In Barre, Superintendent John Pandolfo said water samples were collected at every tap at Spaulding two weekends ago and at Barre Town’s pre-K-8 school over the weekend.
Those samples have been sent to the state for testing that will determine whether any exceed the newly set standard — 4 parts per billion — and what remediation is necessary.
Due to its participation in the pilot study, Barre’s elementary school is exempt from a fresh round of tests under the new law.
The testing in Barre, which was completed more than a year ago, raised only two red flags. Both involved sinks that had to be reconnected in order to be tested and then disconnected. One was never used and the other had not been used in some time. Neither was ever a source of drinking water in a school that opened in 1995.
Spaulding and Barre Town’s elementary school are both considerably older buildings, and while the Legislature included more than $2.8 million to cover the cost of initial testing and reimbursements for replacing water “fixtures” as needed, school officials are already wondering who foots the bill if the problem is in the pipes not the tap.
That is a concern for School Board Chairman Paul Malone, who cited the vintage of the two schools that are in the process of being tested.
Each, he said, are more than twice as old as Barre City Elementary and Middle School, and if tests reveal lead exceeds the stricter standard that was the subject of a legislative compromise, replacing a few fixtures might not be the solution.
“What happens if you have to remediate the entire plumbing network?” Malone asked during last week’s final meeting of the Spaulding board.
Pandolfo said that was among a number of unanswered questions with respect to the law.
“We’ll see,” he said.
The 4 ppb threshold established by the Legislature is significantly lower than the level of 15 ppb that was in place when the pilot study was conducted, and is more restrictive than the federal standard — 5 ppb — for bottled water.
Lead is a toxic metal and children are especially susceptible to a broad range of adverse health effects it can cause. Continued exposure can lead to reduced IQ and attention span, learning disabilities, hyperactivity, behavioral problems, impaired growth and hearing loss.