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Cuomo: Schools must test water for lead under new state law

Joseph Cammareri, head custodian at Howard B. Mattlin

Joseph Cammareri, head custodian at Howard B. Mattlin Middle School in Plainview, runs the water at one of the school's drinking fountains on Thursday, June 16, 2016. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

ALBANY — Schools will be required to test for lead in their drinking fountains and kitchens under a new law that had raised concerns from school districts in a battle that raged into the final hours of the legislative session back in June.

In signing the bill Tuesday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo also directed the Health Department to issue emergency regulations to require school districts to test water for lead by Oct. 31. He ordered that the results be reported to parents, the state and local governments.

Until the new law was passed, water had to be tested in pipes and leading to schools, but not within school buildings, although some school districts did such tests. The new law aims to protect students and employees from toxic lead in old pipes and fixtures within schools.

The crisis of lead in the municipal water in Flint, Michigan, earlier this year was cited when advocates for the New York bill released a list of 67 of the state’s more than 700 school districts that have been the subject of news reports noting concerns over lead in water. That list included the Northport-East Northport school district represented by Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan and Syosset, represented by the Senate Education Committee Chairman Carl Marcellino.

In June, during the waning days of the legislative session, school districts through the state School Boards Association had quietly circulated a memo among lawmakers that raised concerns about the cost to schools already strapped by the state’s 2-percent tax cap unless residents vote to suspend the cap. Their concern was downplayed by the New York Public Interest Research Group as well as by a coalition of legislators including Marcellino (R-Syosset) and Assemb. Felix Ortiz (D-Brooklyn).

Often such late opposition by a powerful interest group is enough to kill or postpone a bill in Albany.

“Nothing surprises me anymore,” Marcellino said in an interview Tuesday of the opposition. “I’ve been in the Senate almost 20 years and things happen that you wonder where the heck things come from.”

“It is very critical, Ortiz said in an interview. “The legislature listened to parents and the children.” He said lead was an acute concern in old, inner city schools as well as some of the older schools on Long Island.

Marcellino said the school district opposition helped provide state funding for most of the testing and any replacement of pipes in schools, which will help districts afford any costs.

Flanagan said the bill sponsored by Senate Environmental Conservation Committee Chairman Thomas O’Mara (R-Elmira) is the first in the nation to mandate lead testing of water in schools.

“We know how harmful lead can be to the health and well-being of young children,” Flanagan said.

“The governor and the legislature deserve credit for tackling this issue,” said NYPIRG’s Blair Horner. “Now it’s up to the Department of Health to enforce stringent regulations to ensure that no one can rig test results.”

The state School Boards Association said it will be reviewing the regulations that will be drafted as a result of the law.

The association “wants to ensure that every student and employee in our schools has access to safe drinking water, and that schools have adequate resources to properly remediate unacceptable lead levels,” said the school lobbying group’s spokesman David Albert in a statement. “We worked closely with the sponsors, legislative leadership and the governor’s office to ensure that school districts were provided the resources they need to safeguard the health and safety of their students and staff.”

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