Staples wants school water tested; Eddie Smith pushes back

Betty Bean
Government/Politics columnist

State Rep. Rick Staples’ inner city District 15 has some of the oldest school buildings in Knox County, and he’s concerned about the water that kids are drinking.

“We want to keep what happened in Flint, Mich., from happening here,” he said.

That’s why he’s sponsoring a bill mandating the state school board to require schools built before June 19, 1986 (when federal lead bans went into effect), to test students’ drinking water. Suspect samples would be retested, and parents or guardians notified when drinking water shows lead-level test results more than 20 parts per billion. The bill would leave the number of required tests up to the individual districts.

“The spirit of this bill is to capture data in schools built before 1986,” Staples said. “We’re just trying to capture consistent data to show us where we are. …”

Staples said that such tests are not now being conducted, and said the procedure outlined in his bill would require testing 10 taps per school at $20 per tap.

Last week, he presented his bill (HB0631) to the Education Administration and Planning Subcommittee and got a lukewarm reception, primarily because of the $177,000 fiscal note attached. Staples’ colleagues Eddie Smith and Harry Brooks are members of the subcommittee. Smith was skeptical, particularly of the section requiring “periodic testing,” which he said is too vague. He also questioned the level of testing that would be required for finding lead levels of 20 parts per billion.

Smith also said that Knox County has only six to eight schools that were built after 1986, which means that the cost of testing for lead contamination would be at least $20,000 per year, and more if multiple tests are required.

Subcommittee chair Mark White of Shelby County said he considers the bill “a good concept,” and agreed that lead-contaminated drinking water is bad for kids, but said he is concerned about piling another mandate on local school districts. He moved to postpone Staples’ bill for a week to get a better handle on costs, and Staples agreed, after politely expressing frustration:

“We have no knowledge of the levels of lead,” Staples said. “We do not have a mechanism. And when we start thinking about spending dollars, we’re spending dollars on our children’s health.”

Contacted after the meeting, he said he plans to ask for a vote and expressed frustration at the pushback he received, particularly from Smith.

“I believe Eddie’s children are home schooled, so it wouldn’t make that much difference to him. He’s been a great chair of the Knox County delegation, but it would be really great if my colleagues would join me to try and get some bipartisan legislation in place to help capture the data so we can see if there is lead in the drinking water, and if so, how much? Parents and communities want to know this, and we want to keep our children safe. We have to do something to try and answer these questions.”

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