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Thursday, September 09, 2004 - Page updated at 12:06 A.M.

State aid is offered schools to test water

By Sanjay Bhatt
Seattle Times staff reporter

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Gov. Gary Locke yesterday said the state will provide $750,000 to help school districts test for lead in elementary-school drinking fountains.

Districts will be required to provide a 25 percent match to receive the money, but such an assist should help cash-strapped districts like Seattle, which has spent about $2.25 million and estimates it could cost more than $6 million to remedy its lead problems.

Locke said that there are no known cases of lead poisoning caused by drinking water in the state and that of 44 states reporting to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Washington has the third-lowest percentage of children zero to 6 with elevated blood lead levels.

Still, the governor urged school districts to test their water. He said he has directed the state Board of Health to consider the issue when it looks at school environmental standards later this year. "Even though kids are at much higher risk from lead in paint in their homes, and in soil, parents must feel confident that the water their children are drinking at school is safe," he said in a statement.

In Seattle, what is perceived as "safe" could mean the difference between the public spending $1.7 million or more than $6 million to clean up drinking water, according to a proposal slated to go to the School Board on Wednesday and be voted on Oct. 6.

About $1.7 million would pay for plumbing fixes that meet health standards for lead and cadmium contamination.

Though the law does not require it, many districts have decided to avoid lead contamination above 20 parts per billion (ppb), the "action level" recommended by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. But in Seattle, some vocal parents have lobbied for the district to set tougher water-quality standards, arguing that new research shows chronic low-level lead exposure can damage children's brains.

School Board member Sally Soriano advocates lowering the action level to 10 ppb and testing water from restroom sinks. It would cost an additional $405,000 to replace fountains that showed more than 10 ppb lead and $600,000 to test and fix restroom faucets, said Ron English, district water-quality program manager.

Those figures don't take into account the long-term costs of maintaining the stricter standard, which English estimates at $500,000 over a decade.

The proposed remediation plan, presented to a board committee this week, commits the district to the following:

• Health criteria: fixing fountains or sinks in which standing-water or flushed-water samples contain lead higher than 20 ppb.
 
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• Aesthetic criteria: replacing plumbing if half or more of a school's drinking-water sources exceeded an iron limit of 0.3 parts per million. Three schools meet this criteria; test results are pending for 17 other schools.

The district's consultant, Bellevue-based Economic and Engineering Services, would be paid an additional $300,000 this year. The district has committed $650,000 for its services since last spring.

Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 or sbhatt@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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