WASHINGTON -- In the wake of the toxic water crisis in Flint, Michigan, lawmakers in other parts of the country are looking ahead in an effort to stop similar disasters in other communities.
New York and New Jersey lawmakers in particular are scrambling to introduce legislation that would help public schools test for lead in their water, as a number of cases have recently been reported in those states.
Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) and Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) have introduced companion bills in the House and the Senate to fund lead testing at schools and day care centers. Meanwhile, Rep. Donald Payne Jr. (D-N.J.) has introduced legislation that would require states that receive federal funding to help public schools establish programs for lead testing. Federal law currently doesn't require lead testing at most U.S. schools.
“From Flint to Newark we have seen how critical it is to protect our children from drinking contaminated water," Pascrell said Wednesday in a statement provided to The Huffington Post. "All Americans, and especially kids in our schools and childcare facilities, deserve access to clean water. Our job is to make it easier for the facilities to conduct needed testing by providing funding sources. Exposure at any level is unacceptable."
All three lawmakers have watched as high levels of lead were discovered at schools in their own backyards. In Newark, New Jersey, 30 public schools had their water shut off earlier this month due to elevated levels of lead, prompting city officials to warn students and faculty, "Don't drink the water."
Payne, the primary representative for Newark, wants to require any school built after 1996 to test for lead in drinking water biannually. His bill, which would update the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974, would also require that parents be notified within 48 hours if lead is found to exceed the action level set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
"As a parent, I want to know that my children are drinking lead-free water, and I want other families to know that about their own children, too," Payne said.
When 60 lead samples from two schools in Ithaca, New York, tested positive for high levels of lead in late February, the issue hit home for Schumer. On a conference call with reporters Wednesday morning, he said the first priority should be to keep children’s drinking water safe when they are at school.
“It’s disturbing that Flint may have been just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to toxic lead in our kids’ drinking water -- and the lead contamination in Ithaca, New York, only underscores this concern," Schumer said. "Right now there is a yawning gap in our lead-testing protocols. At the federal level, we do not require or support lead testing in schools."
The legislation authored by Pascrell and Schumer would create a $100 million federal grant program through the EPA that would help school districts and child care centers test their drinking water for potential lead contamination.
Pascrell, a former mayor of Paterson, New Jersey -- like Newark, an urban environment with large communities of color -- said he understands the need for resources and funding to encourage communities to take steps to protect their drinking water.
By forming an annual grant program, the legislation would give schools an incentive to apply for federal funding in consecutive years. If a school district doesn't apply for or receive funding in a given year, it can apply the following year.
"Giving schools the resources to test the quality of kids’ drinking water is the right and safe thing to do because lead poisoning is easily prevented -- and because the effects of lead poisoning on our children’s bodies and brains is catastrophic and irreversible," Schumer said.