Politics & Government

Gov. Inslee directs agencies to reduce lead risks, following Tacoma test results

Gov. Jay Inslee issued a seven-part directive Monday aimed at reducing lead exposure in Washington, following the detection of lead in water at 13 Tacoma schools and in water lines leading to a handful of homes in the city.

The wide-ranging order directs the state Department of Health to review health and safety regulations for schools, as well as prepare a plan for the Legislature to implement a policy that requires testing of schools’ drinking water.

A plan to require such monitoring by the state Board of Health was adopted in 2009, but put on hold and never funded by the Legislature.

John Wiesman, Washington’s secretary of health, briefed the media on the governor’s directive Monday. He said the Department of Health will prepare an estimate of how much it will cost to test the water in schools and present that information to lawmakers to consider as they draft a new two-year budget next year.

In 2009, it was estimated that testing at all schools throughout the state would cost $5 million, officials said.

We absolutely think testing drinking water is essential and important.

John Wiesman, secretary of state Department of Health

Wiesman said he thinks rising public awareness of the problem of lead in drinking water will spur lawmakers to fund mandatory testing, even though they have failed to do so before.

“We absolutely think testing drinking water is essential and important,” Wiesman said Monday.

Inslee’s directive also tells the Health Department to prioritize removing lead service lines when granting low-interest loans for drinking water projects and to look into creating a registry for older rental properties that are likely to have lead paint. He is charging the department with developing a plan to remove all lead service lines and lead components from larger public water drinking systems within 15 years.

At the same time, health officials emphasized that contaminated soil and lead paint contribute more to elevated blood-lead levels than lead in drinking water. Wiesman said Inslee’s directive takes steps to address those sources of lead contamination as well.

“Our task right now is to get as much lead out of the drinking water system and out of the environment as we can,” Wiesman said. “And it’s going to take us some time to do that.”

Inslee’s actions follow the discovery of high lead levels in water service lines at four Tacoma homes, three of which had short lead plumbing connections called goosenecks. Tacoma Water officials have since replaced the goosenecks at those three homes, but are still conducting tests to determine the best way to proceed with 1,700 other homes that may have similar connections.

Following the initial findings in Tacoma, Seattle Public Utilities also began testing water at five homes that it suspected may have goosenecks.

News about high levels of lead in Tacoma water prompted The News Tribune to request records from Tacoma Public Schools last month, leading to the discovery of prior test results that indicated high lead levels in the water at 13 elementary schools.

This directive will better ensure we’re working in coordination and leveraging resources effectively to tackle lead at all its primary sources, whether it’s water, paint or soil.

Gov. Jay Inslee

One early test at Tacoma’s Reed Elementary pegged the amount of lead in the water at 2,330 parts per billion, or more than 100 times the level deemed actionable by the Environmental Protection Agency. Subsequent testing by the district has found much lower levels of lead in the water at Reed.

“While no imminent public emergency has been discovered, recent detections of lead in some water systems are highlighting the important roles our water utilities, schools, public health departments and the state play in ensuring we all have access to safe, clean drinking water,” Inslee said in a statement Monday.

“This directive will better ensure we’re working in coordination and leveraging resources effectively to tackle lead at all its primary sources, whether it’s water, paint or soil.”

Inslee’s directive simultaneously looks to improve blood testing for lead among children who are deemed at high risk for exposure.

While Washington has a below-average rate of children who test positive for elevated blood-lead levels, only 3 percent of the state’s children are being screened right now, said Lauren Jenks, director of the Health Department’s office of environmental public health sciences.

If followed, new screening guidelines the state issued late last year could increase the screening rate to 25 percent of kids statewide, Jenks said.

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1