BARRE — Classroom drinking fountains that were taken out of service for the final few days of school at Barre Town Middle and Elementary School last month are now being physically removed after state-mandated testing revealed most of them dispensed water with elevated levels of lead.
On Monday, members of the Barre Unified Union School District’s facilities committee received an update on lead testing conducted at the pre-K-8 school in Barre Town and Spaulding High School last month.
That testing mirrored sampling that was performed more than a year ago at Barre City Elementary and Middle School as part of a pilot study that led the Legislature to enact strict new standards for lead levels in water at schools and child care facilities.
The testing at the city’s elementary school, which opened in 1995, raised only two red flags and both involved sinks that had to be reconnected in order to be tested. Both were disconnected.
Facilities Director Jamie Evans told the committee two other sinks — both in the kitchen — tested high, but within the threshold — 15 parts per billion (ppb) — at the time. The fittings were replaced and they remain in service.
Though 15 ppb is still the Environmental Protection Agency standard, the new “action level” set by the Legislature is 4 ppb and the two older schools in Barre’s new two-town district didn’t fare as well during recent testing.
The results were better at Spaulding, where nine of the 80 taps tested were at or above the action level based on an initial test and none exceeded 4 ppb based on samples that were taken after the water was allowed to run for 30 seconds.
According to Evans, the highest result recorded at the high school — 60 ppb — came from a sample taken from the ice machine in the athletic trainer’s room. The figure dropped to 1 ppb based on the 30-second “flush draw,” he said.
Only two of the other eight initial results — all from sinks — exceeded the EPA standard and both dropped below Vermont’s new 4 ppb level based on the “flush draw.” No drinking fountains were flagged on either test and the kitchen was cleared.
The story was different at the school in Barre Town, where 38 of the 86 taps tested had lead levels at or above the 4 ppb standard on the initial test and three — all classroom drinking fountains — still exceeded it after the 30-second flush test.
Evans said the initial sample taken from a rarely used fountain in one classroom had a lead level of 871 ppb. After the water ran for 30 seconds it dropped to 23 ppb — nearly six times the new standard. The next highest result recorded during the testing regimen — 176 ppb — came from the initial sample taken from a classroom sink. The level dropped to 1 ppb after the water was allowed to run for 30 seconds.
Evans said that was generally the trend, with initial samples registering at or above 4 ppb and dropping below that level after the water was allowed to run.
That wasn’t always the case. One classroom fountain registered 39 ppb based on the first sample and 42 ppb based on the second sample, while another dropped from 30 ppb to 8 ppb based on the two samples.
Evans said the classroom drinking fountains are all being removed and students and staff will use others — all equipped with chillers and filters — located throughout the building. Water from all of those fountains was tested and passed.
Two of the school’s nine kitchen sinks were flagged on the first test — one with 10 ppb and the other with 4 ppb — but samples from both taken after the water was allowed to run registered 1 ppb.
As was the case at Spaulding, most of the elevated samples at the town’s elementary school were taken from classroom sinks and in every one of those cases letting the water run produced a sample that came in under 4 ppb.
Evans said he was openly skeptical that swapping out fixtures — the solution the state has offered to reimburse — would improve the test results.
“You can change those fixtures, but I bet my paycheck you’re still going to have the same results,” he said.
Due to Barre City Elementary and Middle School’s participation in the pilot study that started in 2017 and was concluded more than a year ago, the Barre Unified Union School District is a step ahead of most of its Vermont counterparts.
Barre Town, Spaulding and 10 other schools from three other districts were asked to expedite lead testing before school let out for the summer. Testing at the rest of Vermont’s schools and child care centers will start in the fall and must be completed by Dec. 31, 2020.
The law requires any tap that produces an initial water sample with a lead level at or above 4 ppb to be immediately removed from service for drinking and cooking and permanently remediated.
Based on the Barre Town results, Evans said he wondered how realistic — or necessary — that was, and said he was eager to have a follow-up meeting with state officials to discuss appropriate remediation and reimbursement.