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Environmentalists push for schools to test drinking water for lead; Madison is one of few that does

Wisconsin receives failing grade for policies

Environmentalists push for schools to test drinking water for lead; Madison is one of few that does
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Environmentalists push for schools to test drinking water for lead; Madison is one of few that does

MADISON, Wis. - Environmental groups are advocating for stricter state laws addressing lead in school drinking water.

Most schools in Wisconsin have fountains or faucets that contain lead, but it's not a requirement that they test for it, according to a new report released Tuesday from the Wisconsin Environment Research and Policy Center and WISPIRG.

The report gives Wisconsin an F after the groups say the state failed to protect children from lead exposure. Wisconsin Environment State Director Megan Severson explained that the grade is based not on data showing high lead exposure in schools but on Wisconsin's policies for addressing the issue.

"A big part of the problem is that Wisconsin's laws don't go far enough," Severson told News 3 Now.

As part of its preventative maintenance plan, the Madison Metropolitan School District plans to annually test 10 percent of the water fixtures or faucets a student or staff member could drink from, according to Chad Wiese.

"We're responsible for 25,000 little ones every single day, and it was on us to make sure the water they were drinking was as safe as possible," Wiese said.

Wiese, the executive director for building and administrative services, said in 2017, the district tested every fixture, including kitchen sinks and the swimming pools. The testing came after repeated requests from parents.

"We hadn't done districtwide testing in 30 years, and (we) had folks in the community and parents and teachers that wondered, 'Why not?'" he said.

In 2017, only 7 percent of the district's water fixtures were found to have more lead than the federal standard set by the EPA. Wiese said 97 out of 1,300 samples were higher than the EPA's standard of 15 parts per billion, but all of the fixtures have since been replaced. 

The 97 samples came from only six schools, and Wiese said they were typically found in drinking water fixtures that were not the ones most frequently used in each school.

The report released Tuesday is asking for state action requiring schools and day cares to test for lead and requiring them to disclose their findings.

One of the problems, however, is the high cost. Wiese said the districtwide test cost more than $100,000 for MMSD.

Severson said urging state lawmakers to pass Democratic Gov. Tony Evers' state budget proposal, which would allocate $40 million to support lead service line removal. He also declared 2019 as the Year of Clean Drinking Water in Wisconsin.

However, Republican lawmakers would not say Tuesday whether they would consider Evers' $40 million plan.

"I feel like the simple answer was to just say, 'We're going to have government pay for all these lead line replacements, but the number nationwide is trillions of dollars, which we will never have the ability -- at least in Wisconsin -- to be able to do things like that everywhere across the state," Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos told reporters Tuesday.

He continued, "I certainly would be open to doing something that is less expensive, perhaps fixing the actual problem which is making sure people have clean drinking water and the ability to cook."  

In February, Vos announced the Speaker’s Task Force on Water Quality, a bipartisan group of legislators that will make recommendations on improving groundwater and surface water quality in Wisconsin.

The state also received an F in the 2017 edition of the environmental groups' report.

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