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Michigan lawmakers may require schools to test water for lead

LANSING — Michigan lawmakers are moving forward on requiring schools and other facilities to regularly test water for lead and other contaminants, closing what one advocate calls a “gaping hole” in state law.

The House Natural Resources Committee on Wednesday heard testimony on a package of bills — including several that had languished for more than a year — to require such testing. Lawmakers in both parties voiced support for the proposals that followed the Flint water crisis.

“There’s a lot of technical questions we’ve got to figure out, but I can’t imagine there’s not going to be broad support for testing,” said committee chairman Rep. Gary Howell, R-North Branch.

“Nobody’s in favor of unsafe drinking water.”

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The bills would require testing at public and nonpublic schools, colleges, child care centers, hospitals and veterans centers. Still to be decided are testing logistics and funding, said Howell, who noted that discussions with sponsors and Department of Environmental Quality staffers will consolidate the bills into one piece of legislation.

The hearing followed a stalemate that had frustrated many advocates. Howell, who is sponsoring a bill to require tests at veterans facilities, said the “incredible number of bills” referred to his committee caused the delay.

Lead is neurotoxin that can irreversibly damage brain and nervous system development, and it’s particularly harmful to young children. That’s why Gov. Rick Snyder’s Flint Water Quality Advisory Task Force in 2016 recommended a program that would test for lead contamination at all Michigan schools and childcare centers.

Even when larger water supplies meet federal and state standards for lead contamination, water in individual buildings could be tainted by corroding lead or galvanized steel service lines and fixtures.

Typically, rural schools that use well water are required to test regularly, but other schools are not.

“It’s the gaping hole in the regulatory scheme,” said James Clift, policy director at the Michigan Environmental Council, adding that the bills appear to have a good chance of advancing.

Some schools hooked up to public water supplies test voluntarily, but other cash-strapped schools balk at the cost.

In the state’s 2017 budget, lawmakers set aside nearly $4.3 million to reimburse schools that deal with lead problems. Few schools applied, however, in part because the state money would cover a fraction of the costs. The program has since ended.

As lawmakers dive into the details of testing bills, Cyndi Roper, a Michigan policy advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said it’s important to ensure schools can respond to any tainted water sources in a more sophisticated way than simply blocking access to a specific drinking fountain, for instance.

“We hope we’re not cutting kids off from access to water,” she said.

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