By Briana Vannozzi
Consider it a VIP list no one wants to be a part of.
Districts across the state are testing fountains and faucets out of growing public concern over lead exposure. Two schools in Hamilton are the latest to find elevated levels of the toxic metal in their drinking water.
“I hope it’s a wake-up call for a lot of the other districts that, wow we need to test our water,” said New Jersey PTA President-elect Rose Accera.
Stakeholders met for a roundtable in Trenton this morning. They’re pushing to pass a statewide mandate that will test all New Jersey schools’ drinking water for lead contamination.
“It’s going to be a cost, you know, there’s no question about it. It’s going to be very expensive but it’s something we can’t ignore. We’re poisoning children and that’s not acceptable,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney.
“The issue here is, the water they’re getting from whatever water utility seems to be OK. The question now is are they testing individual units in the schools? I think this is an issue of focusing the magnifying glass at a lower level,” said New Jersey School Boards Association Director of Government Relations Mike Vrancik.
The bill will give the Department of Education $3 million to reimburse school districts for testing. The first would be within 30 days prior to the start of the school year and another six months later. The legislation gives another $20 million from the Clean Energy Fund to reimburse schools for water filters.
“When I heard that we were asking children to hold the water fountain down and count for 30 seconds before they drank it, I said whoever made that law never sat in an elementary school classroom,” said AFT NJ President Donna Chiera.
In Trenton, the public school system began its own testing back in 2005, thanks to a little-known grant through the DEP. If the statewide mandate becomes law both the DEP and Department of Education will provide guidelines for testing. Schools will be required to give a copy of those results to commissioners in both departments, and make them available to the public, parents and guardians.
“We’re in the process of another round of testing so probably within the next month or so we’ll know what the testing has yielded but as they’ve moved through, when schools were identified as having elevated levels, corrective action was taken,” said Trenton School Board President Jason Redd.
Most of the focus has centered on Newark, where 30 public schools tested positive for high levels of lead. State, local and federal lawmakers held their own media gathering there today, calling on Congress to pass the TEST for Lead Act.
“The TEST for Lead Act amends the Safe Drinking Water Act to require states to help schools establish programs to test for lead in drinking water,” said Congressman Donald Payne Jr.
Sweeney says it’s a two part process — provide help to identify the problem, then find ways to get at the root cause. But there’s a third part that’s been downplayed today — getting the governor to sign it.