A bill racing toward passage in the legislative session’s closing days would require all school districts to test for lead in water fountains, lunchrooms and other sources as the concern about the potential hazard in old school buildings rises nationwide.
Senate Education Committee chairman Carl Marcellino (R-Syosset) is among the powerful sponsors in each chamber of the Legislature pushing to pass the measure before the June 16 scheduled end of the 2016 legislative session.
“It’s a shame we have to do a bill like this,” said Marcellino, a former schoolteacher. He said old schools in particular were built with lead pipes held together by solder which can break down over time and create a lead hazard in drinking water. He said lead testing of school water should be routine, but advocates said loopholes in federal and state laws allow cash-strapped schools to skip regular monitoring.
“We don’t accept that they can’t afford it,” Marcellino said. “You can’t afford not to do it.”
Assemb. Felix Ortiz (D-Brooklyn) said the problem is most acute in low-income school districts.
“Big time,” Ortiz said in an interview. He said a school in his district that eventually found unacceptable levels of lead in its water is now paying for water to be brought into the school.
The bill introduced in March made little progress until this past week when Assembly members and senators amended a version that is now expected to pass in each house. It would then be sent to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to sign into law or veto.
“Protecting the quality of water in our schools will require the collaboration of federal, state and local officials,” said Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi. “We will be reviewing this legislation, among other options, as we work to address this critically important issue.”
Cuomo had no immediate comment Tuesday.
The crisis of lead in the municipal water of Flint, Michigan, underscored the concern nationwide over lead found in water including in the Los Angeles school district. 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 Marcellino.
The bill would require schools to test for lead at the taps, inform parents and teachers of results, and provide state funding for testing and remediation. The state Health Department would have to create an annual, public report with the test results. Currently, schools using municipal water supplies are exempt from testing water at the tap, which would reveal any contamination from pipes in the school building.
Schools must be surveyed every five years for hazardous conditions which can include lead pipes, but there is no comprehensive plan to test the water, according to the New York League of Conservation Voters and the New York Public Interest Research Group.
Students “can’t be educated and they can’t learn if they are damaged by lead,” said Assemb. Deborah Glick (D-Manhattan), an influential member of the chamber’s Democratic majority.