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LEAD ON LEAD: Bills call on schools, daycares to test for contamination

By: Nate Beck, [email protected]//September 18, 2019//

LEAD ON LEAD: Bills call on schools, daycares to test for contamination

By: Nate Beck, [email protected]//September 18, 2019//

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State lawmakers are trying with a pair of bills introduced this week to compel school districts and child-care centers throughout the state to test and repair infrastructure made of lead.

The bills, called the SCHOOL Acts — which stands for Supporting Children’s Health Ousting Outdated Lead — require school districts and private child-care centers alike to identify and remove lead pipes. The proposals comes as state lawmakers have been grappling in recent months with how to respond to looming concerns about the presence of lead in drinking water.

The proposals, introduced by Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay, and Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt, R-Fond du Lac, have attracted broad bipartisan support. Theisfeldt said in an interview Wednesday that the proposal is in keeping with a similar bill that he and Cowles had introduced in an attempt to help homeowners finance the replacement of lead pipes. Former Gov. Scott Walker signed that legislation in 2018.

The latest pair of bills — introduced as Senate Bills 423 and 424 — would call on schools public and private, as well as child care centers, to eliminate infrastructure made of lead. Thiesfeldt said lead is particularly harmful to children. Requiring schools to remove it from drinking water, he said, would go far to curtail a health threat that’s thought to be widespread in Wisconsin.

“No level of lead is safe for people to drink,” he said. “It also is particularly harmful for children.”

The bills were each introduced on Wednesday and sent to the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy. A companion bill is expected to be introduced in the Assembly in the near future. Cowles and several Democratic lawmakers who have signed on as sponsors didn’t return messages seeking comment by press time Wednesday.

Current estimates hold there are be about 170,000 lead service lines in the state, most of them in urban places. Even so, Thiesfeldt said he’s not only uncertain how many schools in the state are contaminated with lead; he’s not sure if an accurate tally exists.

Although work to replace lead pipes has been taking place in many Wisconsin cities in recent years, some argue it’s not happening fast enough. In Milwaukee, officials say it’s being hindered by a shortage of contractors. Contractors, meanwhile, say public officials haven’t put enough money into lead-pipe replacements.

Lead pipes became a subject of much debate during the state’s latest budget negotiations. Lawmakers on the state’s powerful Joint Finance Committee infuriated health advocates when they removed money that was to be set aside for replacing lead pipes.

Thiesfelt on Wednesday said he’s encouraged to see that this latest pair of bills is drawing bipartisan support. He also noted that he hasn’t heard complaints from interest groups representing schools. Officials with the Wisconsin Association of School Boards did not return a message seeking comment by press time.

Of the two bills, one would require child-care centers to test for lead and remove sources of lead contamination — or risk losing the licenses that allow them to operate. The proposal would also require child-care centers to send regulators results from water tests six months before applying for a license to operate or a license renewal.

The other bill would require school boards — including leaders governing public schools, independent charter schools and private schools — to test all drinking water sources for lead within three years of the bill’s adoption and to report those findings to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.

If such testing were to find lead at levels exceeding federal standards, school officials would be required to develop a remedial plan, shut down sources of water that contain lead and provide an alternative source of water.

The proposal would also allow school districts to use a trust fund maintained by the Bureau of Commissioners of Public Lands to provide loans for pipe-replacement projects. School districts could pay back interest on these loans using money that’s part of the state’s Safe Drinking Water Loan Program.

Some school districts, though, may still not be able to pay off the debt without throwing yearly budgets off-course. Recognizing that risk, the bill would allow school districts to raise money by circumvent rules governing local voter referendums.

Schools are now prevented by state law from holding referendums more than twice a year. Thiesfeldt’s latest bill would relax that restriction.

“I think if its a large (construction) bill, that’s going to throw their budget into some difficulties,” Thiesfeldt said, “Particularly if its a smaller district that discovers lead.”


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