By Christopher Cameron and Rebekah Sherry
Over 100 of the 125 school districts on Long Island are on track to finish testing their pipes for lead contamination, but questions remain on how school districts will pay for the high cost of testing.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo passed a bill last week mandating that all public schools finish testing their water for lead pollution by October 31st.
But many school districts say that hiring contractors to test for lead can cost tens of thousands of dollars, an expense that isn’t covered in a school district’s budget. Kings Park Superintendent Timothy Eagen said it cost his district $15,900 to contract with H2M Architects and Engineers for the testing.
“Water quality in school was not on the radar as a possible health risk,“ Eagen said in an email. “Based on our results, it is not likely that we put any students or faculty members at risk.”
The secretary of Gordon Brosdal, superintendent of the Mt. Sinai school district, said that they tested their water for lead even though it wasn’t apart of the district’s budget.
“We didn’t know we had to do it when we made the budget.” Mt. Sinai superintendent’s office said. “It was an unfunded mandate.”
Other school districts on Long Island have also reported that they were not at a high-risk for lead pollution, but began the latest round of testing voluntarily after recent incidents of contamination in Ithaca, New York, and Flint, Michigan.
In order to comply with the new legislation every water output within a school district must be tested at least once, though schools often test an output two or three times. Follow up tests are also conducted periodically, and each one costs between $20-$40.
Lead pollution is so expensive to test for because it can’t be tracked through the water supply, said Dr. Harold Walker, a researcher for the New York State Center for Clean Water Technology.
“Lead is released into the water as it travels in the distribution system, and often does not come from the original source of water. ” Walker said. “To thoroughly test a system every faucet used for drinking needs at least one sample. Sometimes more than one sample is needed.”
While Cuomo’s bill mentions providing waivers to schools that comply with the mandate, it is not clear how much of the cost those waivers will cover. The penalties school districts will face for missing the deadline is also unclear.
Most schools that tested positive for lead contamination had only minor elevations in their samples, said Brandon Broderick is an associate at JC Broderick and Associates, one of the contractors testing for lead pollution in Long Island schools.
“Lead is more likely to be found in a water source that isn’t used very often” Broderick said.
A representative from the New York State Department of Health added that they have not begun tracking schools that are behind on their testing schedule, as the testing mandate has only just gone into effect.
The entire process of testing usually takes four to six weeks, but in cases where several different school districts are trying to test at the same time, testing facilities will become overbooked and schools end up waitlisted.
This was the case at the beginning of the summer when most Long Island school districts started looking into lead testing. Jericho superintendent, Hank Grishman, was told he’d start getting results back in two to three weeks but it took two months for the first set of results to get back to him.
Paul Casciano, the superintendent of the Port Jefferson school district, said that any schools that haven’t already voluntarily started testing for lead contamination will miss the October 31st deadline.
“We have tested in some prior years, but Flint led to the latest round of tests.” Casciano said. “Whatever it costs, it’s worth doing.”
New York is the first state in the nation to mandate that all of its public schools test their water for lead. Senator Chuck Schumer (NY-D) is advocating for similar water quality legislation in congress.