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DPHHS, OPI spar over possible lead testing rule in Montana schools

Posted: 7:09 PM, Jul 11, 2019
Updated: 2019-07-11 21:09:26-04

HELENA – Montana health officials are considering a rule to require all public schools in the state to test their drinking water for lead and remediate the worst cases of lead contamination.

The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) held a public hearing Thursday morning to discuss the possible rule changes.

Officials with Montana’s Office of Public Instruction (OPI) indicated these new water testing rules were implemented without proper communication between the two agencies, and they have requested an extension to allow schools, educational stakeholders and communities to both fully understand the substance of these rules and provide proper comment.

Montana DPHHS provided evidence to indicate the dangers of lead in water in public schools and its long-term effects, especially in growing children. Ingesting lead can cause cognitive delays, learning disabilities and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, in students.

During the hearing, OPI representatives expressed concerns about a lack of transparency between them and Montana DPHHS with the new proposed rule adoptions.

Elise Arntzen, Montana’s superintendent of public instruction, told MTN News: “[The] Department of Environmental Quality, as well as DPHHS and the agency of OPI, Education Advocates Association, all need to sit down and discuss the impacts and figure out how we can manage getting from ‘point A to point B,’ in making sure our students are safe. But being excluded from a conversation is what has happened. That lack of transparency, that lack of conversation, is poor leadership and very poor government. That’s not what I was elected to do, and that’s not what our schools and communities expect.”

Arntzen continued: “We are at the table now, and we want to offer solutions. We are not here to obstruct; the agency wants to make sure that teachers have a wonderful place to teach, that students have a very safe environment when they come and learn, and parents expect that. So the OPI is at the table at this time, and I want to have a great conversation going forward. And we will.”

Both Montana DPHHS and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) set a date of October 1, 2019, by which all Montana public schools will be required to test their water and make accommodations accordingly.

DPPHS shared a statement from the public hearing: “Calculating the estimated cost of remediation is not feasible because the costs are dependent upon variables that are currently unknown, such as the extent to which lead testing will reveal the need for remediation and site-specific factors relating to remediation of individual school facilities. DEQ and DPHHS will work together to provide guidance on various effective remediation actions and continue to explore additional funding opportunities to help schools with remediation costs.”

-Reported by Christine Sullivan/MTN News