Our opinion: Legislature can do better on lead

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The legislative process in Vermont is nothing if not deliberate. That's not a bad thing; democracy is messy, and when public funds and the public welfare are at stake, the time and effort spent are almost always worth it.

In the case of adopting a standard for testing drinking water in schools for lead, however, it's puzzling to see the Legislature bog down on what ought to be a slam dunk. Testing ought to happen quickly, and the limits for lead ought to be as low as possible.

That's not where we're heading as two competing versions of a lead testing bill head to conference committee. Because it's not as simple as it looks.

Both the state House and Senate have approved bills that establish mandatory testing programs for the state's schools. The reasons are crystal clear: Even small amounts of lead can cause permanent mental and physical developmental damage in children.

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At the start of this legislative session, there was broad agreement, from the Scott administration and from legislative leaders, on the necessity of a school lead testing bill. And there's still broad agreement.

Where the process has gotten bogged down is in the details.

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The Senate version (S.40) sets an action level of 3 parts per billion of lead, establishes a deadline of Jan. 1, 2020, and reimburses schools for 50 percent of the cost. The House version seeks to reimburse schools fully for testing (up to a certain cap), extends the deadline to the end of 2020, and sets an action level of 5 parts per billion.

The estimated difference in cost between the House version ($3.2 million) and the Senate version ($2.5 million) is $700,000. For a state contemplating a $6.3 billion budget, that difference is so slim, and such a tiny percentage of overall spending — 0.01 percent, for the record — that it makes no sense whatsoever for the state to reimburse at the lower rate. Vermont isn't swimming in revenue, but this is important. And state funding rather than local property tax funding assures that towns with less property wealth can have lead-free water in their schools without cutting something else.

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Considering the stakes — keeping our children healthy, safe and free of toxins that cause permanent mental and physical developmental damage — $3.2 million is an insignificant price to pay. (That's 0.05 percent of $6.3 billion, for the record.)

Vermont already has a health advisory level of 1 part per billion, which is consistent with the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation for school water sources. And the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Academy of Pediatrics agree there is no safe limit for lead exposure in children. However, the Food and Drug Administration's standard for bottled water is 5 parts per billion, and bottled water is what teachers and kids will be drinking if their taps and lines have to be replaced. And one hopes the result of that work will be water that tests at 1 part per billion.

The American Academy of Pediatrics standard of 1 part per billion would be the gold standard outcome. It's yet another example of opportunity cost, and opportunity lost — an example of where the millions of dollars Vermont is spending annually to pay down pension liability, as the result of past underfunding, would come in awfully handy.

When these bills go to conference committee, the result should be the lowest action level the state can afford. And it should be fully funded by the state, for equity's sake.


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