Flathead Schools Tackle Lead Levels in Water Editor's Picks Support independent journalism.

On the second floor of Flathead High School, tucked in the back of a science storage room, is an unassuming sink denoted FX228, for “plumbing fixture 228.” The sink is not used for filling up water bottles or for drinking — per science lab safety protocol — which is good, because water from that sink recorded the highest concentration of lead of any fixture in the Flathead Valley, a whopping 929 parts per billion (ppb), during a test last July.

The test was part of a new statewide rule created by the Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) in 2020, which requires schools to test the water of any sink or fountain used for food preparation or that may be potentially used for human consumption every three years, with initial sampling completed by the end of 2021.

According to the rule, any fixture with a level of lead detected higher than 15 ppb must be immediately shut off, and a fixture with a lead level between 5 ppb and 15 ppb must be remediated and flushed daily if it is to remain in use. By contrast, the measurement of plumbing fixture 228 registered a concentration 185 times the level deemed “safe” by regulators.

Of the 34 schools in the Flathead Valley that have submitted testing results, all but four of them had at least one fixture that registered a level of lead above 5 ppb, and 19 had at least one test higher than 15 ppb.

At Flathead, in addition to the storage room sink, 14 other fixtures tested higher than 15 ppb, and 65 were higher than 5 ppb.

“To put that in perspective, it’s throwing a five-gallon bucket into a billion-gallon pool,” said Kalispell Public Schools (KPS) Superintendent Micah Hill. “It’s very minimal in terms of concentration, but the agencies say no lead is safe in school water and we don’t disagree.”

Lead is a toxic metal known to cause multiple health problems in humans, especially in children, where even low levels of lead exposure can cause behavior and learning problems as well as slowed growth. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) both state there is no safe level of lead, which can leech into the water system from pipes or plumbing fixtures.

Hill says one of the problems with the testing process is that it’s difficult to determine where the lead may be entering the system from. Testing involves taking various measurements of water from a fixture — essentially drawing out the water contained in larger and larger increments of piping — but the contamination could be from a single welded joint 20 feet into a cement wall or from a faucet that can be replaced.

“Nothing about this is easy,” Hill said. “My end goal would just be to get this solved, but to do that we need time and money.”

Hill said any fixture that tested over 15 ppb had its waterline cut off to render it inoperable — including Fixture 228. Any contaminated drinking fountains were replaced with filtered bottle-filling stations, a quick fix, but one that requires the constant replacing of filters.

Flathead Schools Tackle Lead Levels in Water Editor's Picks Support independent journalism.

But as Hill says, it’s really just a short-term fix.

“The question is long term,” he said. “How do we go from Band-Aid to a permanent solution?”

Funding is the biggest barrier schools must deal with after testing is completed. While the state helps cover the cost of testing, repairs aren’t factored into the budget.

At East Evergreen Elementary, immediate fixes have already shown a decrease in more than 20 affected fixtures.

Evergreen School District Superintendent Laurie Barron said after the initial round of testing, the district replaced 16 classroom faucets, installed 19 filter systems and removed 19 drinking fountain bubblers, at the cost of more than $15,000. Follow-up testing revealed that 22 sites had dropped to “safe” levels.

Meanwhile, over at Evergreen Junior High, where more than half of all fixtures tested high, Barron said signs were posted indicating they were unsafe for drinking, but the funding was unavailable to do the same overhaul as at the elementary school.

“One difficulty is finding products that the manufacturers will guarantee meet Montana’s strict standards,” Barron said. “We are still searching for permanent solutions and hoping the state will provide the funding we need for repairs.”

To overhaul the piping infrastructure for a permanent solution at KPS’ most-affected schools — Flathead High School, as well as Hedges, Elrod and Russell elementary schools — the estimated cost is around $2.6 million.

While the district applied for a competitive water grant through the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) to receive funding for the major repairs, the grant would still require a 50% match from the district.

Potential funding sources for the $1.3 million in matching funds if the district receives the grant include dipping into its building reserve or general fund, Hill said.

“Over three years, that’s probably doable to cobble together the funding,” Hill said. “But that only addresses four schools, it doesn’t address all of them.”

“These are really complex budget and engineering issues to be addressed,” Hill said. “Lead in water is certainly an issue but we also have roofs that need to be replaced and boilers that need to be replaced. This is just the one pushed to the forefront.”