By Daniel Rothberg, The Nevada Independent

Nearly 80 elementary schools across the state have yet to complete lead testing on drinking water, according to the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection, despite commitments from most superintendents that their districts would screen their water fountains or kitchen sinks.

The division’s safe drinking water program, which is administering the voluntary tests as part of an Environmental Protection Agency grant, was the subject of a recent legislative audit that brought the issue to light. Since Nevada does not require public water systems to test for lead within a school district’s facilities, the division wanted the grant to fill a data gap for testing lead, an element linked with brain damage and development issues, especially in young children.

“We’ve generally had this question in the back of our minds as to what might be going on in the elementary schools,” said Jennifer Carr, a deputy administrator with the division. “We saw that [data gap] as a potential hole in our understanding of the drinking water for young kids.”

Even if lead is absent in city pipes, contamination can still arise closer to the delivery point if the piping around water fixtures — drinking fountains or sinks — contained lead and corroded. Of the 314 elementary schools that have been tested so far, data has pointed to nine places — mostly sinks — where lead levels were above the project’s action level of 20 parts per billion, (The action level for the project, set by the EPA, is higher than the 15 parts per billion action level used for municipal drinking water testing because of different sampling methodologies).

The state, through its grant, has provided funding to replace that infrastructure. When the state had initially budgeted the grant, it had expected a lot more funding would be needed to replace infrastructure. Because there will likely be leftover funding, state officials are now looking to extend and amend the grant so testing can be expanded to middle schools and high schools. State officials noted that most of the roughly 600 tests came back with negative results. Only a fraction — about 1.5 percent — showed lead concentrations about the action level.

The audit also pointed out that “a very small portion [of tests] showed unacceptable lead levels” and that “the incidents were resolved by replacing problem water fixtures.”

But the program had a slow start, according to the audit.

Nevada officials received the grant in late 2016. By January 2017, they had informed the school districts and state-sponsored charter schools that funding was available for some lead testing. One year later, only 189 of 392 eligible elementary schools, or about 50 percent, had conducted lead screenings, according to the audit, presented to the Legislative Commission last week.

It found that “most school districts have not taken advantage of this project funded by a 2-year federal grant.” Since the audit’s data was compiled in January, more than 100 schools have conducted some lead testing under the grant, according to the environmental agency.

Yet a participation update, included in a March 16 letter that the division wrote to the auditors, found that two districts — Humboldt County School District and Pershing County School District — have not said whether they will be participating in the program. In an interview Tuesday, Carr, the division’s deputy administrator, said her agency had not heard from the districts.

“We haven’t received any feedback from them at all, positive or negative,” Carr said.

The participation update, with the division’s March letter, also showed that several rural school districts have yet to use any grant money to test their schools. Carr said that some progress has been made in recent weeks. In Elko County, for instance, she said the district was focused on other infrastructure priorities, such as fixing a boiler, but is now turning its attention to the testing.

“As of last week, [the district] had already started with a couple of the schools,” she said.

During the Legislative Commission meeting last Wednesday, Assemblyman Jim Wheeler asked the division how to fix the discrepancy between testing at urban and rural schools.

“I’d still like to get more information on that to find out what’s going on,” Wheeler said.

At the meeting last week, Greg Lovato, administrator for the division, told legislators that the agency is continuing to reach out and suggested some of the reluctance to participate, among the two non-responsive districts, might have to do with the sensitivity around lead exposure.

“Once [the school districts] take on the responsibility of participating in this, they need to come up with plans for handling results, informing parents and taking actions,” Lovato said.

His hope is that more schools will come to the table once the division presents its preliminary results and that with more outreach, the program will hit 100 percent participation.

“What we’re hoping is that by presenting the results of how well this has been working across the state, the remaining schools that haven’t been involved will learn how it can be done in a smooth fashion and be completed in a timely manner,” he said.

In the four years since lead leached into the Flint, Michigan water supply, regulators have taken a more aggressive look at the potential for lead to enter the water systems. Much of their focus has been on preventative measures. State officials see the testing as an extra layer of security to protect school staff and children, who are especially vulnerable, against lead exposure.

So far, the division’s testing has uncovered nine “water fixtures” — delivery systems like sinks — that tested positive for lead exposure, and the agency provided funding to replace them.

The Clark County School District, for instance, announced in January that three elementary schools found lead in excess of the 20 parts per billion action level for the EPA grant, the Review-Journal reported. At one school in Indian Springs, about 45 miles outside of Las Vegas, a kitchen sink had levels of lead contamination that reached 520 parts per billion, though a district spokesperson told the newspaper that the sink had not been used for years. In the Washoe County School District, one sink tested around 62 parts per billion, the division said.

In many ways, though, the testing only scratches the surface.

The $90,000 grant gives the schools an opportunity to test up to two water fixtures, but most schools have many more water delivery systems. That’s why the division wants to expand the program to allow more testing at elementary schools or new testing at middle and high schools.

Carr said the division has received verbal permission from the EPA to extend the grant, which is currently set to expire in September. The division will also attempt to amend the grant’s goal. Because the division has only had to replace a few fixtures, there is still enough funding to conduct testing beyond the original goal to test two fixtures at every elementary school.

The move will follow the path that the Washoe County School District has taken over the last year. The school district, through capital improvement funding has invested about $250,000 beyond what it received from the grant to test for lead in every water fixture at every school.

“We wanted to make sure there was no cause for concern,” said Riley Sutton, a district spokesperson, who added that there has never been an indication of a system-wide issue.

To date, the district has sampled about 7,600 individual fixtures at all of its elementary schools and about 80 percent of its middle schools. It is using an even more stringent criteria than the grant and the EPA, removing water fixtures that test above a 10 parts per billion standard.

It has replaced about 50 fixtures that were below the EPA standard of 15 parts per billion but above the school district’s standard for the project. It has removed an additional 46 water fixtures, from drinking fountains to hand-washing stations, that were above 15 parts per billion.

“They were immediately taken out of service and replaced,” Sutton said.

This article reprinted with permission from The Nevada Independent. Those interested can email contact@thenvindy.com