Kathleen James: Get the lead out


As adjournment approaches — with a tentative target date of May 17, but who knows? — the House Education Committee is hoping to bring two big bills across the finish line.

The first bill is S.40, introduced in January by Sen. Brian Campion (D-Bennington) and several co-sponsors, including Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington).

The bill would require all schools and child care facilities in Vermont to test their drinking water for lead contamination, and then replace the taps if the water tests at or above a defined action level.

It was introduced in response to a 2017 pilot study conducted by the Vermont Department of Health, Agency of Natural Resources, and Agency of Education. (To read the study, go to healthvermont.gov and search for "Lead in School Drinking Water.")

Sixteen schools participated in the pilot by testing water from every tap used for drinking or cooking. In all, water from nearly 900 taps was tested. Some lead was detected (greater than 1 parts per billion) in the drinking water at every school, and elevated levels (greater than or equal to 15 ppb) were found in five schools. Lead is a toxic metal that's particularly harmful to children; it can impact their growth, brain development, and behavior.

S.40 passed the Senate on February 14 by a unanimous 29-0 roll-call vote and then crossed over to House Education, where we spent five weeks taking more testimony from experts and advocates. We revised the bill by raising the action level to 5 ppb from the Senate-recommended 3 ppb.

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By raising the level, we're assuming fewer schools will be required to replace fixtures, which would increase the state funds available to reimburse each school.

(We're working within a limited budget, and schools will have to cover any cost above a set reimbursement amount. Right now, the state funds should cover about 80 percent to 100 percent of cost.)

It's important to understand that, while no level of lead is safe or acceptable, both the Senate- and House-recommended action levels are far below the EPA threshold of 15 parts per billion.

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Bottled water, for example, has an FDA allowable level of 5 ppb. Also, according to the Centers for Disease Control, lead-based paint — banned in 1978, but still present in some older homes — is the most common source of lead exposure for kids.

By the time you read this, the House will likely have voted on S.40 — I'll be helping to present the bill on the floor this week. From there, it could be headed to a conference committee, where we'll hash out our differences and, hopefully, send a consensus bill off to Gov. Scott for his signature.

We're also working on S.164, the miscellaneous education bill, which contains several interesting sections.

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The first section creates a step-by-step procedure to safeguard student records when an independent college is placed on probation or closes.

The second creates a task force to study how sexual harm — sexual assault, domestic violence and stalking — is adjudicated on college campuses.

Another interesting section asks Vermont Technical College to study how VTC could deliver all — or part — of its associate degree programs to high-school students at our regional Career Technical Education centers across the state, with two possible pilot programs in Fall 2020.

Meanwhile, we're teeing up priorities for next year, including universal pre-K — how Act

166 is being implemented and how it could be improved. The Agency of Education is studying this important question and will deliver a final report to the legislature this summer. I've posted the preliminary report on my Facebook page (Kathleen James VT State Representative), where I also post regular legislative updates and opinions. Follow my page and join the conversation!

Kathleen James is a Democrat who represents Bennington-4 (Manchester, Arlington, Sandgate and part of Sunderland) in the Vermont General Assembly. She's the clerk of the Education Committee and newly appointed to the New England Board of Higher Education.


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