Thirty-six of the 57 fixtures tested at Hedges Elementary School in Kalispell produced water with unsafe levels of lead, according to a report released by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and Kalispell Public Schools on July 28.
The findings revealed lead concentrations in water from 10 of the fixtures measured above 15 parts per billion, which exceeds the Environmental Protection Agency’s “action level” and goes well beyond the Montana DEQ standard of five parts per billion. Those ten fixtures — three drinking fountains and seven sink faucets — have been taken out of service. Twenty-six other fixtures tested produced water with between five and 15 parts per billion of lead, and those fixtures must be removed or replaced before they are safe to use.
Any amount of lead in water is dangerous, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and children are “especially susceptible to lead exposure because their bodies absorb the metal at higher rates than adults,” Montana DEQ wrote. To help identify potentially hazardous conditions, the Department of Public Health and Human Services instituted a Lead in School Drinking Water rule that went into effect in January. The new regulation requires every school in Montana to test for lead by the end of 2021.
Hedges was built in 1929 and most recently underwent lead testing in 2005, at a time when only the federal standard of 15 parts per billion was in place. Micah Hill, who took over as KPS superintendent on July 1, said work to replace the noncompliant fixtures will begin as soon as possible and that additional work is possible as district officials work to mitigate the problem.
KPS is the first district in the state to begin lead testing and Hedges was the first school to be tested. Results were also released for Rankin Elementary, which opened in 2018, and two fixtures there were found to be out of compliance. Additional results from Peterson, Elrod, Edgerton and Russell elementary schools are expected later this summer, along with Kalispell Middle School. Seven more district facilities, including Flathead and Glacier high schools, will have their water tested in 2021.
In 2018, Hedges parent Ryan Hunter first brought his concerns about potential lead contamination to the Kalispell school board, and the board later agreed to begin lead testing. When the state announced its own program, KPS scrapped those plans and signed up for the state-mandated program. The statewide lead testing is paid for using funds from an EPA grant.
The significant remediation required at Hedges, however, is not covered by state grants. Hill said the district plans to use money from its building reserve fund to pay for the project, which could include replacing more than just drinking fountains and taps, as lead contamination could happen anywhere within the school’s plumbing.
“I’m just glad we’re getting out in front of it and at the end of the day I want our kids to have safe drinking water in the buildings,” Hill said. “I know it’s going to cost money to do that but it’s doesn’t mean that we don’t obligate ourselves to doing what’s right.”
Hill, whose own three children attended Hedges, said he could “understand” any parents’ fears about lead poisoning but added that district schools have always been in compliance with state regulations. Greg Montgomery, who manages the Lead in School Drinking Water program for Montana DEQ said catching potentially dangerous fixtures is precisely the point of the new regulation.
“That’s why we’re doing this testing,” Montgomery said. “We didn’t know any of the information.”
In addition to the stringent testing, districts are also required to create a water-flushing plan, since lead rarely occurs naturally in the water supply but is instead caused by a building’s water lines or fixtures. DEQ is requiring schools to flush their water system anytime a building has been closed for more than three days to prevent corrosion from certain types of pipes and solders into stagnant water.
Hunter, who was elected to the Kalispell City Council in 2019 and whose daughter still attends Hedges, says he wasn’t surprised by the findings but was pleased that a plan was now in place to rid the school’s water supply of a dangerous toxin.
“I wish the state had mandated it and I wish Kalispell school district had been doing these tests a long time ago,” he said, clarifying that his perspective was as a parent and not a city councilor. “I’m thankful they’re doing it now. You can’t change the past, I guess.”
CORRECTION (Aug. 4, 2020): A previous version of this story misidentified the agency that instituted the Lead in School Drinking Water program and incorrectly asserted the state had a lead standard in 2005 (only the federal standard existed at that time). The Beacon regrets the errors.