10.15.18

Senators Peters, Stabenow Urge the Administration to Take Action to Protect Michigan Students from Lead in Drinking Water

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senators Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow were joined by 33 of their colleagues this week in calling on the Department of Education and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to take action to protect students from lead in drinking water. A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report shows an estimated 41 percent of public school districts did not test for lead in school drinking water, and a third of districts that were tested showed elevated levels. In Michigan, schools in Detroit, Ann Arbor, Flint and elsewhere are addressing this very problem.

“Lead is a neurotoxin, and any amount of exposure in a child can slow growth and development, damage hearing and speech, and cause learning disabilities,” wrote the lawmakers. “The Flint water crisis, which was caused by a series of unconscionable and short-sighted decisions, renewed national awareness about the dangers that lead exposure poses to children and public health. The crisis also underscored that even the most basic resource within our communities, safe drinking water, cannot be taken for granted – a reality confronting schools across the country.”

“In total, GAO offered ED and EPA seven recommendations that will encourage school districts to test for lead and ensure testing and remediation efforts are aligned with best practices. It is critical that you implement these common-sense recommendations immediately, and we ask that you provide us with a timeline for completing all seven of GAO’s recommendations,” the lawmakers continued. “We stand ready to work with you to ensure that all schools are fulfilling their duty to provide students with clean drinking water that keeps all children safe and healthy.”

U.S. Senators Jeanne Shaheen, Elizabeth Warren (D-ND), Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Patty Murray (D-WA), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Joe Donnelly (D-IN), Mike Bennet (D-CO), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Bob Casey (D-PA), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Edward Markey (D-MA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Tom Carper (D-DE), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Bill Nelson (D-FL), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Tim Kaine (D-VA), Charles Schumer (D-NY), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Jack Reed (D-RI), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), and Tina Smith (D-MN) also signed the letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Acting Administrator of the EPA Andrew Wheeler.

Last week, the Water Resources Development Act passed 99-1 in the Senate authorizing $25 million for the Lead Testing in School and Child Care Program Drinking Water Grant providing funding for lead contamination testing at schools and child care centers. More information on the grant can be found at https://www.epa.gov/dwcapacity/wiin-grant-lead-testing-school-and-child-care-program-drinking-water.

The full text of the letter may be found below.

The Honorable Betsy DeVos

Secretary of Education

U.S. Department of Education

400 Maryland Avenue, S.W.

Washington, D.C. 20202

The Honorable Andrew Wheeler

Acting Administrator

Environmental Protection Agency

1200 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.

Washington, D.C. 20460

Dear Secretary DeVos and Acting Administrator Wheeler:

We write to urge the U.S. Department of Education (ED) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to take immediate action to protect students from lead in school drinking water. A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report found that an estimated 41 percent of public school districts, serving 12 million students, did not test for lead in school drinking water. Furthermore, GAO found that where school districts tested for lead, more than a third of school districts found elevated lead levels. Given that lead exposure can result in a variety of health impacts, especially for young children, we urge you to swiftly implement GAO’s recommendations to encourage more school districts to test for lead and take immediate action to combat lead in school drinking water.

As you know, lead is a neurotoxin, and any amount of exposure in a child can slow growth and development, damage hearing and speech, and cause learning disabilities. The Flint water crisis, which was caused by a series of unconscionable and short-sighted decisions, renewed national awareness about the dangers that lead exposure poses to children and public health. The crisis also underscored that even the most basic resource within our communities, safe drinking water, cannot be taken for granted – a reality confronting schools across the country. 

  • In Michigan, the Detroit public school system shut off drinking water at all of the city’s public schools after finding elevated lead or copper levels in multiple public schools.
  • In Wisconsin, 169 buildings in the Milwaukee Public School System were found to have at least one fixture that supplied water with elevated lead levels.
  • In Indiana, 61% of 915 schools tested in recent months found fixtures with elevated lead.  
  • Schools in Colorado, Florida, New York, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and many other states are also confronting lead in their drinking water.

The GAO report made clear that ED and EPA must accelerate actions to address this problem.  While both of your agencies provide guidance and other resources to states and school districts regarding testing and remediating lead in drinking water, GAO found that some EPA regional offices have not communicated the importance of testing for and remediating lead in school drinking water to school district personnel. Furthermore, GAO found that ED and EPA do not regularly collaborate to support state and school district efforts to address lead in drinking water, despite agreeing to do so in a 2005 memorandum of understanding. In total, GAO offered ED and EPA seven recommendations that will encourage school districts to test for lead and ensure testing and remediation efforts are aligned with best practices.

It is critical that you implement these common-sense recommendations immediately, and we ask that you provide us with a timeline for completing all seven of GAO’s recommendations. We stand ready to work with you to ensure that all schools are fulfilling their duty to provide students with clean drinking water that keeps all children safe and healthy.

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