‘Filter first’ school water bills get warm bipartisan reception at Senate hearing 

By: - October 26, 2021 3:49 pm

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A set of bipartisan bills to ensure clean drinking water in schools and child care centers heard favorable testimony Tuesday before a Michigan Senate committee, where the legislation is expected to undergo further changes before being voted on.

Senate Bills 184 and 185 were first introduced in late February by state Sens. Curtis VanderWall (R-Ludington) and Jim Ananich (D-Flint). Both bills would provide guidance and funds for schools and daycares to install and maintain equipment like filtered faucets, so children can access drinking water without the risk of lead exposure.

During their joint testimony before the Senate Environmental Quality Committee Tuesday, which coincided with national lead poisoning prevention week, both lawmakers emphasized that children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of lead poisoning.

“There is no safe level of lead,” Ananich said. “And we recognize that efforts should be focused on ensuring children are never exposed to lead.”

Sens. Rosemary Bayer and Winnie Brinks at the Senate Environmental Quality Committee, Oct. 26, 2021 | Laina G. Stebbins

Under VanderWall’s bill, all public and non-public schools would be required to install NSF-certified filters by the end of the 2024 school year. Ananich’s bill would require childcare centers to install filtered faucets and outlets for drinking water taken from the drinking water safety plan.

Ananich said the “filter first” package costs substantially less money — $331 million less, over 10 years — than the “testing first” approach, and is a better strategy overall for preventing lead exposure.

Co-sponsors of the package include state Sens. Adam Hollier (D-Detroit), Paul Wojno (D-Warren), Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit), Rosemary Bayer (D-Beverly Hills), Dayna Polehanki (D-Livonia), Erika Geiss (D-Taylor) and Winnie Brinks (D-Grand Rapids); Wayne Schmidt (R-Traverse City) is the only Republican co-sponsor.

State Sen. Ruth Johnson (R-Groveland Twp.) brought up the issue of arsenic in drinking water, and asked whether language could be added into the legislation about the compound in addition to lead. Ananich signaled that he would be open to it.

Representatives from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) testified in support of the bills, along with the Ecology Center, a water engineer and the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

EGLE legislative liaison Travis Boeskool said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration “remains fully supportive of the concept of these bills.”

Boeskool added that having these fixtures in daycare centers and schools means removing a “significant” source of potential lead exposure.

“We look forward to working with the sponsors to craft language that will ensure an effective and efficient program that will support these facilities in protecting vulnerable populations,” Boeskool said.

Rebecca Meuninck, deputy director of the Ann Arbor-based Ecology Center, reiterated VanderWall’s and Ananich’s remarks that neither testing nor pipe replacement are necessarily the best way to get out ahead of a lead problem.

“The only way to really protect our kids [is] to provide them with safe, filtered drinking water,” Meuninck said, as lead is still allowed in plumbing appliances at very low levels.

“School water is more likely to be contaminated with lead than our homes because of the time that the water spends dormant in the pipes” at schools and childcare facilities, Meuninck said.

But not all schools have the budget or wherewithal to address the issue themselves. VanderWall’s and Ananich’s bills would provide funds and guidance to make sure facilities do it right, she said, from picking the right fixtures to installing them correctly and properly maintaining them over time.

“This guidance is what we lacked in 2018,” Meuninck said, when she and other parents raised the alarm about high lead levels in the drinking water at Ann Arbor’s Skyline High School.

A volunteer carries bottled water to residents waiting to pick it up at God’s Household of Faith Church in Benton Harbor. | Anna Gustafson

That was also the year in which lead was first found in Benton Harbor’s water — an issue which the predominantly Black Southwest Michigan city still struggles with today.

NRDC senior policy advocate Cyndi Roper said the two Senate bills are designed to accept the reality that “if you look for lead in drinking water, you’re going to find it.”

Roper reiterated that the cost of implementing the filter-first approach is “dramatically less” — about one-third — of the cost of what she called the “test and chase” method of testing, finding lead in fixtures then removing the source over and over.

The bill package was not voted on Tuesday as lawmakers continue to negotiate. 

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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins is a former Michigan Advance reporter. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service.