A state Board of Health requirement to monitor the drinking water of every public school in the state for lead has been in limbo since 2009 because of the Legislature.
A sentence inserted into the proposed budget that year — and repeated in every budget since — says that state health agencies “shall not implement any new or amended rules pertaining to primary and secondary school facilities” without the Legislature’s specific funding.
When that budget became law, the line blocked a slate of rules the Board of Health had worked on for nearly five years to modernize health requirements for the more than 2,000 public school buildings in Washington.
That included testing the drinking water for lead and copper.
The result has left such testing a voluntary undertaking for public school districts statewide.
In Tacoma, where lead has been reported this month in the water at 13 elementary schools, district officials began planning for a testing program in 2012, and testing began in 2013, with a portion of the district’s elementary buildings tested each year.
The results apparently lay unexamined until The News Tribune requested a copy of testing records April 22. The district is investigating the situation and has placed an employee on leave.
Elsewhere in Pierce County, Franklin Pierce and Puyallup schools have their own testing programs. Many other districts have said they plan to start.
Secretary of Health John Wiesman plans a news conference Monday morning to outline the state’s plan to protect the public.
A spokeswoman for Gov. Jay Inslee said Saturday that the governor believes agencies can take steps to improve methods of monitoring and tracking lead risks. Monday's briefing also will highlight other potential areas of concern besides water, including lead in soil and old paint, Jaime Smith said.
“Some of it will have to do with protocols around lead testing in schools, and some of it will be broader than that,” Smith said.
At this time, the governor’s office doesn’t think it can unilaterally impose mandatory testing at schools, Smith said.
Rules requiring that testing have been on hold since 2009, when the tight budget crunch the state faced was at least partly to blame for stalling the proposal, according to current and former state officials.
At the time, the first round of lead testing was estimated to cost $745 to $2,270 per school, depending on how many of a school’s water sources were tested, Much of the cost would repeat every five years.
The policy also would have meant ceding local school systems’ authority over their buildings to health agencies on matters from water quality to photocopier ventilation and safety barriers around auditorium orchestra pits.
All that made for an “extremely discouraging” debate in Olympia, former Board of Health director Craig McLaughlin said.
“It was very controversial at the time and extremely political,” McLaughlin said by phone Friday.
Eventually, the proposed rules were shelved, including the lead testing. Who shelved them remains unclear, even years later.
A House bill sponsored by Reps. Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, and Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, to put off the rule never came up for a floor vote. A Senate version by Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, was approved by a wide margin in that chamber but never received a House vote.
All three lawmakers are still serving; Dammeier, now a state senator, is a candidate for Pierce County executive. None returned a call Friday.
Instead of a House vote on either version of the bill, the line to make its key provision law was inserted into the budget while the House was considering it.
State records attach no name to the specific change, which first appears in a late draft of the proposed budget.
“Nobody wanted to necessarily be on the record against protecting kids in school,” McLaughlin said. “... It’s policy masquerading as a budget, and it’s pretty effective.”
He added that he felt he could speak freely now that he is out of government.
The House’s lead budget writer at the time, Rep. Kelli Linville, D-Bellingham, said she could not explain the situation.
Linville, now mayor of Bellingham, said she “cares a lot about our drinking water,” but has no recollection of how the line got into the budget in a 515-page top-down redraft she assembled.
“I certainly don’t remember that,” she said, “because I spent a lot of late nights nodding my head ‘Yes’ on things that were in the budget.”
Whatever its origins, the restriction stuck.
Then-Gov. Chris Gregoire issued a series of partial vetoes of other sections of the budget — including two items in section 222, where the provision appeared — but allowed it to stay when she signed the bill into law.
The same word-for-word line has appeared deep in each subsequent budget and been signed into law.
“They just went into autopilot,” said ex-Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, who was in the Legislature at the time and is running for superintendent of public instruction.
Ross Hunter, who succeeded Linville as the lead House budget writer until he left the Legislature in 2015, did not return calls or an email asking about the line’s inclusion in his budgets. He is now director of the state Department of Early Learning.
The shelved Board of Health schools policies are alive, in a way. A Web page maintained by the board chronicles the long wait to see whether the Legislature will ever enact the new rules, including water testing for lead and copper.
Even before that proposal, a Senate bill in 2005 tried to address the then-urgent problem of lead and cadmium found in Seattle public schools water by requiring statewide schools water testing and monitoring. It died in committee.
Health officials, including McLaughlin, testified they had concerns about the stand-alone bill, including that the Board of Health was then drawing up a broader policy that would include drinking water safety — the policy that sits in limbo today. The bill died in committee.
Jeanne Kohl-Welles, who as a Senate member co-sponsored the 2005 bill, said she she finds it “deplorable” and “shocking” that lead has been found in drinking water in Flint, Michigan, and in Tacoma.
Kohl-Welles, a Democrat, left the Senate at the end of 2015 for a seat on the King County Council representing Seattle.
“I thought we’d been assured that our drinking water was fine,” Kohl-Welles said.
Staff writers Debbie Cafazzo and Melissa Santos contributed to this report.
Where are the records?
The News Tribune asked for Tacoma Public Schools water-testing records on April 22. On April 29, the school district said it would make the records available Monday.