House and Senate at Odds on Lead Limit for Vermont Schools | Off Message

House and Senate at Odds on Lead Limit for Vermont Schools


  • File: Michael Tonn
Lawmakers are moving quickly to address lead in drinking water at Vermont’s schools and childcare centers, but the House and Senate disagree on how strict the state’s standards should be.

The Senate has approved legislation that would require lead testing at all schools and childcare facilities and would mandate plumbing work at any schools with lead levels higher than three parts per billion. The Senate also approved $2.5 million to fund the tests and half the costs of replacing any faucets.

The legislature's urgency is due in part to a 2018 Agency of Education pilot program that tested water at 16 schools. Of the 900 faucets and fountains checked, 27 had lead levels above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's limit of 15 parts per billion. In response, Gov. Phil Scott called on the legislature to act quickly to expand the program statewide.

House Education chair Kate Webb (D-Shelburne) said Monday that her committee fully supports lead reduction, but its members have concerns about the Senate plan. The House panel is working this week on the bill that the Senate passed and could make significant changes.

“What we’re finding in hearing from facilities managers is that some of the assumptions that [Senators] made … are not always accurate,” Webb said.

Costs could be much higher than the Senate projected, Webb said, if schools have to hire licensed plumbers to do the work instead of using staff. She also expressed concern that the Senate's three-parts-per-billion lead limit would drive costs too high. The House committee supports a standard of five parts per billion. Both proposals are well below the EPA's limit.

Senate Education chair Phil Baruth (D/P-Burlington) said he believes $2.5 million is enough to perform the tests and bring all of Vermont’s schools and childcare centers below the three-parts-per-billion standard.

“The most desired piece of the legislation is that we do the testing within a year and test everybody,” Baruth said. “That’s public schools, independent schools and childcare facilities. So that is very much on track.”

To help lawmakers sort out their disagreements, the legislature’s Joint Fiscal Office is preparing a formal cost analysis.

Webb said those projections are expected this week, and her committee will use the analysis to craft a proposal. If the House and Senate pass different policies, Baruth said, the dispute may be settled by a conference committee made up of members of both the House and Senate.

Lawmakers in both chambers have been working quickly to formulate new lead policies after Scott challenged legislators to fund tests at every school in Vermont by the end of 2019.