House panel debates drinking water filters for schools, daycares

C.J. Moore
Updated, 12:57 p.m., 3/4/20

A bipartisan “filter first” bill package to ensure safe drinking water for children in schools and child care centers had a favorable reception at a state House committee Tuesday afternoon.

Testing for lead in drinking water is not mandated for schools and daycares in Michigan, but a 2018 study detected PFAS in the groundwater of more than 60 facilities in the state. 

Drinking water station | Susan J. Demas

Sponsors and supporters of House Bills 5104 and 5105 testified before the House Committee on Natural Resources and Outdoor Recreation and spoke of the need for students and children to have access to clean drinking water. The committee ultimately did not take a vote on the bills, but plans to in the near future once representatives from the Michigan Departments of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) and Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA) also have an opportunity to testify.

HB 5104 would require the installation of filtered water stations in schools, and create a fund within EGLE so schools and daycares in low-income areas can receive grants to cover the cost of the installation. 

Former state Rep. Sheldon Neeley (D-Flint) was the original sponsor of the bill, but state Rep. Leslie Love (D-Detroit) took over as the lead sponsor once Neeley resigned in November to become the mayor of Flint.

HB 5105, introduced by state Rep. Lynn Afendoulis (R-Grand Rapids Twp.), requires the installation of water filtration systems in daycare centers.

The bottle-filling stations would contain filters to protect against lead, long-chain per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and other contaminants from making it into children’s personal water consumption.

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If enacted, the bills would require schools and child care centers to develop a “drinking water safety plan” by Aug. 1. That plan would need to be made available to staff, parents and EGLE upon request, be updated every five years, include the location of each bottle-filling station, filtered faucet and water outlet, and establish maintenance schedules for each to ensure water quality.

As part of that drinking water safety plan, schools and child care centers would have until Aug. 1 to permanently shut off all other drinking water outlets that have not been converted into a filtered water bottle-filling stations or filtered faucet.

Annual water sampling and testing would also be required for the stations. If the presence of one part per billion (ppb) or more of lead (or another contaminant exceeding state drinking water standards) is ever found, the school or child care center would be required to immediately shut off the water outlet and take swift action to remedy the situation in conjunction with EGLE.

The main concern raised by some lawmakers was the cost. Each drinking water station costs about $25 to install, which will add up to between $100,000-$200,000 for Michigan’s 5,500 childcare centers alone.

Love pushed back on that argument, stating that having access to clean water is worth whatever the price tag.

“Whatever that investment is for the state of Michigan should be a priority for all of us,” Love said.

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Another concern came from state Rep. Laurie Pohutsky (D-Livonia), who inquired whether this is a long-term approach or is merely a short-term solution.

“This is not a short-term solution. This is a long-term solution in the schools,” Afendoulis said.

HBs 5104 and 5105 have support from the Michigan Environmental Council, National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Ecology Center and more. Two public school parents from Ann Arbor and Birmingham* also testified in support of the bills.

“There’s no safe level of lead for human exposure,” said Charlotte Jameson, program director for legislative affairs, energy and drinking water for the Michigan Environmental Council. “… Young children are the most vulnerable to lead poisoning and suffer more severe impacts, particularly due to their developing brains and nervous systems.”

Jameson added that schools and daycares play a critical role in the well-being of children, and while federal laws are currently insufficient to ensure students and staffers are not exposed to lead contamination, “state laws can fill this void.”

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She also explained that “chasing the lead,” or conducting regular sampling and testing of lead levels in drinking water, is not the most effective way to deal with this problem. Lead release is sporadic, meaning that test results on one day may not reflect lead levels the next day.

Jameson also added that many “lead-free” pipe fixtures have some lead in them, making the replacement of entire plumbing systems a costly and likely ineffective ordeal.

“By and large, these filters are incredibly effective at filtering out lead. And so in terms of a long-term solution, this is really the direction we want to go,” Jameson said. “… We’re not spending money chasing lead, and we’re installing solutions that really do work to filter out contaminants in the drinking water.”

Cyndi Roper, NRDC’s Michigan senior policy advocate, said that implementing the “filter first” strategy would cost roughly two-thirds the price of “chasing the lead” in the first year, and would save even more over the course of a decade.

Roper added that over ten years, the estimated cost would be even lower at roughly one-third of that price tag.

* Correction: One of the public school parents who testified at the hearing is from Birmingham.