AUGUSTA — A legislative committee voted Tuesday to endorse a bill that would require all schools in Maine to periodically test drinking water for the presence of lead.

The bill would direct the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to develop rules and water-testing protocols that would apply to the roughly 800 K-12 schools in the state. Current law requires about 300 schools that draw water from wells to test for lead at least once every three years, but the law exempts schools served by water utilities.

The Health and Human Services Committee voted 7-3 to endorse the bill, which has the support of the Maine School Boards Association, the Maine School Superintendents Association and the Maine Education Association.

In 2016, schools in Yarmouth and Benton were required to replace older faucets, fountains and other plumbing after tests revealed levels of the heavy metal that exceeded federal health standards. Because the schools were served by public water utilities that test regularly, the lead likely leached into the buildings’ water supplies through corroded plumbing and fixtures.

The Maine Drinking Water Program within the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention offers to cover the costs of testing up to 10 water samples from schools. While the program has paid to test more than 2,000 samples since late 2016, that still represents a relatively small number of schools, and participation has waned in recent months.

Committee co-chair Rep. Patricia Hymanson, D-York, said schools should have “some accountability for this very important public health” issue. While free testing is available, not all schools are taking advantage of it.

Bill sponsor Sen. Rebecca Millett, D-Cape Elizabeth, acknowledged that the measure, L.D. 153, is an unfunded mandate until the Legislature provides money. But she said lawmakers will have several opportunities – including with two bond proposals – to replenish the School Revolving Renovation Fund to help schools pay for any resulting lead abatement projects.

“There are certain situations dealing with public health and other issues where we say, ‘No, this is important enough that we will mandate it,’ ” Millett said.

But Sen. Marianne Moore, R-Calais, was one of three Republican committee members to oppose the bill because of the funding uncertainty.

“I cannot support an unfunded mandate for my school districts,” Moore said.

The bill now goes to the full House and Senate for consideration.

Kevin Miller can be contacted at 791-6312 or at:

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Twitter: KevinMillerPPH

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