Public water utilities in Maine can now access state funding and educational resources to test for lead in the water at the schools they serve.

Three associations that make up Maine’s drinking water community have teamed up with the state’s Drinking Water Program to provide financial and technical support for voluntary lead testing, according to a letter sent out to water utilities on Dec. 2.

The three organizations — the Maine Rural Water Association, Maine Water Utilities Association and Maine Public Drinking Water Commission — said in the letter that their purpose is to “provide safe and reliable drinking water each and every day.”

Such a program came about after the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, brought national attention to the danger of lead contamination, especially in schools. Children are most at risk to the effects of elevated lead levels, which can cause developmental delays.

“The requirement wasn’t there for testing in schools that were served by public utilities,” said Jeff LaCasse, chairman of the Maine Public Drinking Water Commission who is also the general manager of the Kennebec Water District based in Waterville.

A number of water utilities throughout Maine have already started partnering with schools. The Kennebec Water District recently finished its lead sampling for schools in Waterville, Winslow, Benton and Fairfield that responded to its free invitation. This was a “goodwill gesture” implemented by the district and its board, according to LaCasse.

The tests found unusually high levels of lead in parts of Benton Elementary School, prompting the school to shut off access to drinking water and supply students with bottled water instead. The fixtures in the school were replaced as a precaution, and the water meter was replaced. The water district was unable to replicate the initial high numbers, and the school used engineering firm A.E. Hodsdon for further rounds of testing.

Other water districts in Bangor and Portland, as well as the Maine Water Company, have also done testing at schools throughout their systems over the past year. However, of the estimated 500 to 600 schools that are connected to public water utilities, about 350 have not yet been tested for lead.

On both federal and state levels, water testing isn’t required within schools that are served by public water utilities.

“The understanding at that time was if the system is well below the action level, then there shouldn’t be an issue within the individual structures,” LaCasse said. Old plumbing that contains lead soldering is often the cause of high lead levels in schools, which wouldn’t be detected by testing the water outside of the school’s system.

“We think there will be some widespread changes in regulations within the next few years,” LaCasse said.

Until then, this new program will help coordinate water utilities with schools across the state.

The state will cover the costs to ship and test up to 10 samples for each school a water utility covers. The samples will be sent to the state’s lab for testing, which would normally cost $20 per sample.

The state program is also providing resources on its website to get the partnerships between utilities and schools started. Water utilities can find lists of the schools they serve, a draft letter with which to contact schools and guidance for collecting samples on the site. The public can find educational materials about the lead rule, sampling and how to read results.

If a school wishes to do further testing past the 10 samples paid for by the state, it will have to do so at its own cost. If test results show a need for action, schools will be expected to make the necessary changes.

The resources will be available until April 1, 2017. LaCasse said the program may be renewed after that time, but the state wants to restrain the testing to within the current budget year.

Testing can also take some time, LaCasse said, and if results are in by the summer, it will be easier for schools to make any necessary changes.

Madeline St. Amour — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @madelinestamour

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